While the benefits of mentoring might seem one-sided, both mentors and their protégées go home winners. “People who have mentors enjoy greater career success and job mobility and make more money,” says Dr. Ellen Ensher, author of Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Protégés Get the Most out of Their Relationships and a professor at Loyola Marymount University in California. “There are a slew of benefits that accrue to the individual and to the organization as well.”
Dr. Lois J. Zachary, president of Leadership Development Services, LLC, in Phoenix and author of The Mentee’s Guide: Making Mentoring Work for You, agrees. “It helps you expand your network and take advantage of opportunities you might not know about,” she says, “and it increases risk-taking and confidence.”
It also creates an opportunity for open dialogue you might not find elsewhere. “It’s the one area of the workplace where you should be able to get candid feedback,” stresses Zachary.
On the flip side, those who share their knowledge with others via mentoring gain leadership skills and the satisfaction of paying forward the same professional courtesy that someone likely showed them earlier in their own careers.
Both mentors and their mentees are exposed to a fresh perspective of their collective organization, field or industry, often colored by the viewpoint of their generation. “For mentees, there is a deeper learning, and for mentors there is also a breadth,” explains Zachary.
No mentor? No problem. Your employer may offer a formal mentoring program, but if it doesn’t, you can easily find one yourself. Identifying the right mentor for you may require a little legwork, but it’s worth the effort.
First, reflect on the areas where you could improve in your career. “You need to think about what you want to learn,” says Zachary. “You have to be able to define your learning goals.” For some, it might be fine-tuning their leadership skills, and for others it may be learning how to successfully navigate the political intricacies of their organization.
Ensher suggests you then look around and identify other professionals you admire and who inspire you. They don’t have to be exclusively business colleagues, she explains. These individuals can be from your personal networks, as well.
Once you’ve done that, it’s as simple as reaching out to them and directly asking for their help. “Tell them, ‘I’m interested in learning more about how you got where you are today,’” advises Zachary. “Then you can follow up and say, ‘I’m so excited by our conversation. I would love it so much if you would be my mentor.’”
The first step in a successful mentoring relationship is simply getting to know one another. “Develop a rapport by looking for ways you are similar to each other,” says Ensher. “This can be at a deeper level, such as values and attitude, or at a surface level, such as finding something you both enjoy doing.”
Next, you need to establish clear goals for your mentoring partnership. “Fuzzy goals, fuzzy outcome,” says Zachary. “A mentor is not a magician with special powers who can see what you want. It’s a collaborative learning relationship.” A mentor can help you take your broad goals and sharpen them so you can break them down into action steps and measure your progress.
It’s also possible that you may need multiple mentors to help you reach your various goals. “Mentoring doesn’t have to be monogamous,” explains Ensher. “If you are going back to school, go get a school mentor. If you are becoming a mom, get a mom mentor. Mentoring is a way to help you at all stages of your life.”
An important factor in a positive mentoring experience is establishing ground rules. This includes things like deciding who will take notes during the meetings and agreeing not to gossip during your time together. One rule Zachary swears by: “Always have your next meeting on the calendar.” That way, busy schedules won’t get in the way of your best efforts.
Another way to respect your mentor’s time is to incorporate mentoring sessions into existing items on the calendar. “Everybody is busy these days, and most people don’t need another thing to do on their list. If I can integrate [mentoring] into what I am already doing, it’s manageable,” says Ensher, who’s mentored while taking walks or even while getting pedicures.
As in your personal life, relationships with mentors may change as months or years go by. Once you’ve met your established goals, it might be time to move on from the mentoring partnership. “What I recommend is phasing things out rather than having an abrupt ending [to the relationship],” says Ensher. That way you preserve valuable contacts and don’t burn any proverbial bridges you may need in the future.
Whatever you do, be grateful for the gifts your mentor has given you, from the hours that could have spent elsewhere to the expertise and wisdom of experience. “Mentoring is a precious gift,” sums up Zachary. “Use your time well.” And never forget to say thank you.
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