The Importance of Finding A Mentor

The wish for a mentor, as described by Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, is “the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming.” She pushes back against the notion that there is a single person out there who is poised to make all your dreams come true, which sends the message to early working professionals their career success can only come from finding someone escort them through the door to the C-Suite. In one memorable passage from her novel, Lean In, she writes: “[Y]oung women are told that if they can just find the right mentor, they will be pushed up the ladder and whisked away to the corner office to live happily ever after.”

You might have heard it before too, from the same well-meaning people who tell you to “reach out to your network,” that you should “find a mentor” – as if it’s an action to take, like sending in a resume or practicing a commonly asked interview question. In reality, the last thing you want to do is approach someone and ask them “Will you be my mentor?” People are busy, and will be overwhelmed by the pressure to be your one advocate and advisor in every situation, particularly if you don’t have a natural relationship with them already.

However, it’s crucial to have mentors for many reasons: to be sounding boards, advocates, connections, for granular advice on a particular topic, for feedback, to show you the ropes, to walk you through sticky work situations, or to be your promoters.

One of Boly:Welch’s founders, Diane Boly, has a great story about a mentee she’s known for decades. K. originally met Diane through a formal youth mentoring program, although it was only after K. had grown up, been through college, gotten married, and had a baby that she reconnected with Diane. At the time, K. was an administrative assistant at a medical office, and wasn’t feeling challenged or happy about where she was in her career. She asked Diane out for breakfast to talk through some of her frustrations.

After asking a few questions about what K. was struggling with, Diane realized that K. “had a stopping point that was all mental. I felt she just had to believe in herself…I helped her see herself as everyone else saw her, which I think really altered her confidence level.”

Within six months, K. had interviewed for and started a new job paying $10K more a year. Better yet, the company was supporting her going back to school to become a nurse.

While Diane takes no credit for K.’s initiative and abilities, she does see the power in a mentorship relationship to break down barriers for their mentees.

So, how do you harness this great career-boosting momentum? Finding a mentor has been covered extensively in some great articles: here, here, or here. However, when I think about mentors, I like to consider these three things:

1. You can have more than one mentor.

Like Sheryl Sandberg warned, putting all your hopes and dreams in one be-all-end-all relationship is typically unrealistic. A more modern definition of mentorship has been described as a board of advisors, each with different areas of expertise. Your mentors might not have much in common besides authenticity and honesty, and maybe a similar set of values with you. Find mentors who relate to different facets of your career and who are in varying stages of their own professions. You’ll gain a different perspective from every supporter, which one mentor described as a “democratization” of your career growth.

You can find a mentor almost anywhere. Really!

Look for someone who has a job or career you want someday. If you’re on track at work, start with a more senior coworker or a boss. Even a successful peer at your office can be a great mentor. See if they’ll grab a cup of coffee with you to discuss their own career. If you’re looking to make a change, research people whose work you admire or who are employed at companies or industries that interest you. Set up informational interviews and, if they go well, meet up again. Maybe even schedule your next meeting at the end of the first one. Attend networking and industry events and actually follow up with the people you find interesting.

As long as you initiate and follow up, you will find lots of mentors.

2. The onus is usually on the mentee.

This is really a two part issue – the mentee has to be responsible for nurturing the relationship and also has to have already done the initial soul-searching and formulation of what to ask their mentor.

In a mentoring relationship, it’s generally the mentee’s responsibility to take the initiative–not the mentor’s. Absolutely, a great mentor will go out of their way to ensure the success of their mentee. However, your effort is a critical part of the mentoring relationship, which will really only exist if you initiate and follow up consistently.

The mentee must prepare for every meeting. You have to take the time to identify what you want to do, why you want to do it, how you want to do it. You can’t just be pulled along in the mentor’s wake – they are there to amplify and course-correct, but they can’t tell you what you want or figure it all out for you.

Like most things, the amount of energy you put into the relationship will directly impact what you get out of your mentorship. Without preparation and effort, mentorship devolves into a series of awkward coffees and stiff conversations.

3. You have to ask for what you need.

Make it easy and clear to a mentor how they can help you. Spell it all out for them: this is where I am right now, this is what I’m thinking about next, and this is how you can help me. I need feedback. I need a connection. I need an idea. I need super-granular advice. I need your guidance on this uncomfortable situation at work. Etc.

If a mentor can help, great! If they can’t, they’ll let you know. The worst they can say is no, or maybe they just don’t get back to you. However, not asking is much worse because no mentor can read your mind. If you don’t ask, you won’t get what you need.

And one last point: you can also be a mentor. No matter where you are in your career, you have valuable experience and perspectives that can empower other people.

As Maya Angelou says, “When you get, give. When you learn, teach.”

Contributed by: Abby Pfeiffer, Recruiting Consultant, HR