Posted by: Christine Donovan | June 7, 2009

Finding and Learning from a Mentor

My last post discussed how helpful a mentor can be in helping you to achieve your goals… whether personal or professional.

But I’ve found that most people become stuck at the first step:  How do you find a mentor anyway?

First (if you are at all reluctant to approach a potential mentor), you need to adjust your mindset.

Be aware that most people would be flattered that you would ask, and usually WANT to help… unless time constraints or the pressures of life take priority.  Most people whom you respect enough to mentor you are the very people who would love to help.  In fact, if they don’t want to help… they probably wouldn’t have been a very good mentor anyway.

If you are in a large company or organization (small business owners and individuals also benefit from having a mentor, which I’ll address in another post), here are my suggestions for finding a mentor:

1. Get out the org chart and study it.  Where do you exactly want to be in five, ten, or more years?  It may not be with the same company, or it may be in a different profession than you are currently in, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a mentor now who will be of help to you in whatever you pursue in the future.  Use the org chart to help you think about the types of people/professions who could help you along your path.

2. Look at the department/division/specialty where you want to be.  Where is/are the person/people who might be the most help?  Maybe it’s a manager or a vice president.  It depends on you, your chutzpa and your ambition, and it also depends on the reputation of the potential mentor.  If you hear that, “Harry is a dictator and impossible to work for,” then maybe you don’t want to approach Harry.  So check around first.

3. Create a plan to meet your mentor. You have several options here: you could volunteer to work on a project that she is leading; you might join a professional organization that he belongs to and make a point of introducing yourself; you could ask who knows someone who works in her department, and let them know you’d like to meet the mentor to get his advice.

And, of course, you can always take a bolder step and just email him or call his assistant to set up a meeting. You could say…”I’ve had an interest in eventually working in the (blank) department, and wondered if Mr. Anderson would have a few minutes to meet with me to share his ideas and suggestions?”

Any good manager always has an eye out for potential staff members, so the odds are she will gladly meet with you.

When you meet with her, it’s up to you but I wouldn’t necessarily say, “I’d like you to be my mentor.”  Not everybody knows what that means exactly, and it could be a concern to them about time, or possibly hidden agendas (People can get suspicious, and with good reason).  I never asked one of my mentors if they would be my mentor; it just evolved naturally.

So I would just let the relationship grow one day at a time.  At the end of the initial meeting, ask the mentor if it would be OK if you called, emailed or met with them once in a while.  Don’t overdo it!  You don’t want to be a pest… and some people just don’t get this concept.

4. Offer something in return. Although most good managers (or good people for that matter) are happy to help someone along in their career, we should never take their generosity for granted.  You don’t want to be perceived as a pest or a leech… and that can happen if you don’t have the sense to be sensitive to your mentor’s time and his own pressures, and always offer your mentor something in return.

I’m not talking about something monetary or materialistic (although a thoughtful gift is always appreciated), but think of ways you can help your mentor as well.  Maybe you are a whiz at a new software, or with online social networking, or with some new technological innovation that your mentor has expressed an interest in learning. 

This is a perfect opportunity for you to give back.  Perhaps your mentor is learning golf or tennis, and you are a semi-pro… why not ask him to meet you on the driving range one afternoon to give him some tips.?

All good friendships and relationships must be reciprocal to be strong and long-lasting.   So never take your mentor for granted; she is an important person in your present and future life.  Treat her well; offer help in return; let her know that you appreciate her support and advice.

More about mentors next time…

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