Make the most of your mentor

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For those who have had a mentor in the past, you know the good that they can bring to your growth and development in a given area, or help with your general understanding of your organization.

If you have never had a mentor, might I suggest that 2017 be the year that you keep your eyes open for one? I will outline a few guidelines for making the most of your relationship in this article.

In some companies, such as the Big 4 accounting firms, you are assigned a mentor, and having mentoring relationships are common practice. Some business schools also promote mentoring by matching students with industry professionals. While I would definitely recommend that you take advantage of such a framework if it is presented to you, the matches are not always ideal. Sometimes you have difficulty establishing a relationship or a connection with your assigned mentor, and this can limit your ability to take full advantage of what the relationship can offer.

One of my mentors once told me: “People are in your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime” and I found that this quote definitely applies to the mentoring relationship. Some mentors are in  your life for a reason: there is specific knowledge you need to acquire and this person helps you to learn it. Some mentors are there for a season: a particular period in your career and whom you eventually outgrow. And some mentors are there for a lifetime. I think these mentors represent the classic image we have of the mentoring relationship: someone older and wiser who advises you at different points in time and is there witness to your triumphs and setbacks throughout your career. These relationships are indeed special and they are similar to when you meet a best friend – you don’t know at the beginning of the relationship that this is what it will blossom into, but you end up standing the test of time.

I think because the latter example is the classic image of mentorship, many of us are waiting to meet that “mentor soulmate” and miss the possibility of the first two. I would propose that if we approached mentorship with a specific goal in mind, we increase our chances of meeting that wise mentor that is there for a lifetime.

Your role as the “mentee”

Before you set out to find a mentor, you have to look at yourself and your motives. No one owes it to you to be your mentor, and you can’t just walk up to someone and say “I would like for you to mentor me” and expect them to be thrilled. Yes, some mentoring relationships develop naturally, but if you decide to seek someone out, you have to establish your game plan as a mentee.

  1. Determine what you want from the mentor. It can be to learn a specific technical skill or a soft skill.
  2. Determine the frequency at which you would like mentoring. Monthly? Quarterly?
  3. Develop a shortlist of possible mentors. Think of 3-5 people who could mentor you. If the first person on your list can’t, you can move down the list.
  4. Ask your mentor what days and times suit them best (meetings for breakfast? After hours?) and the method of communication that they prefer (in person? on the phone/FaceTime?)
  5. Always arrive at your meeting with your mentor with a plan. This includes what you have done previously to acquire the skill or an update from the last meeting and specific questions

It’s important to approach the mentoring relationship with respect and flexibility. Many people are flattered and will gladly accept to mentor you, but as I mentioned earlier, they don’t owe you anything. If you show yourself to be flexible and always arrive with a plan, you increase your chances of being a mentee who is worth the mentor’s time and effort and set the tone for a positive relationship.

Finding a mentor and managing the relationship

More often than not, you will meet someone in your day-to-day whom you respect and admire. For your first mentoring relationships, I would recommend approaching people you know and develop your skills as a mentee. If you cold-call someone at the top of your industry right away and you blow it due to inexperience, you could damage your career.

A good way to approach a potential mentor is simple. Explain to them that you are looking to improve in a given area and how you think that they could help you. This is where your game plan will come in handy. If your mentor sees that you are organized and have clear goals, you increase your chances of them saying yes.

Keep in mind that your mentor doesn’t always have to be someone in your field. Sometimes, it can be beneficial to be mentored by someone outside your area of expertise because it allows you to broaden your perspective and you also end up giving back to your mentor by sharing your knowledge with them.

If you decide that you would like to be mentored by someone within your organization, particularly if there is no formal mentorship framework already in place, always advise your direct manager before you enter into a mentoring relationship. You don’t want to blindside your current manager, so it is good to keep them in the loop and let them know who is mentoring you. With that said, your current manager doesn’t need to be involved in the mentor/mentee relationship unless you want them to be.

Generally speaking, there is an unwritten rule with mentoring regarding confidentiality. Neither discusses what is disclosed during the meetings with third parties. It behooves you to keep a low profile and to treat the information received as classified. This will help to build trust with your mentor and create a favourable atmosphere for continued mentorship.

It’s also okay to expect the mentoring relationship to end. You may have learned what you needed to and want to end regular meetings. It’s perfectly acceptable to say this to your mentor and thank them for their time and support. Most mentors will stay open and available in the future for questions or an occasional meeting to catch up.

As a mentee, you always want to keep an attitude of respect and gratitude. It may happen that you are not getting what you expected out of the relationship. Let’s say for example, that your mentor keeps postponing your meetings. This can get very frustrating because you want to move forward. It is understandable that a mentee would want to express this and take action. I would actually advise against this for a couple of reasons. First of all, you don’t know what is going on in someone else’s life and sometimes being a mentor takes a back seat to other priorities. Secondly, you don’t want to burn a bridge. Your mentor volunteered their time to help you, and you never want to appear as though you are throwing this back in their face. Just because the person can’t mentor you right now doesn’t mean that they won’t in the future or introduce you one day to someone who is a great mentor. Your best bet is to acknowledge the roadblock and let your mentor off the hook. You can say something like: “I know you are really busy these days. How about we cancel our meeting for now and you can let me know when your schedule frees up?” This is a good way to gracefully step away from the relationship and allows you to move on to the next person on your short list.

Like in any relationship, having a mentor can help you in ways you never thought possible. In light of our December reflection, this could be a good time for you to think about how you would like to develop and to find someone who can help you to grow in the coming year.