Career Article 154:
The Power of a Career Mentor
By Tamara Dowling, CPRW
Early in my career there were managers who instructed me, and were shining examples of success. Although I valued them, they were not career mentors. I didn't know it, but something was missing.
A few years into my career and a couple job changes later, I discovered the power of a career mentor. My first experience with a career mentor was when I began a job as a supervisor of a small department. My new manager was different in that she understood how important it was to participate in her staff's career.
Here's how my mentor did it.
One on One Meeting
Once a week, she met with me alone in a 'one on one' meeting. We each brought an agenda. We covered the usual current events, but also discussed the roadmap for my department, and the company as a whole. She was great at demonstrating how we fit into the big picture.
If I brought a problem, I was expected to share possible solutions rather than wait for her to suggest something. I was trained to question everything in the pursuit of ongoing optimization.
These meetings were scheduled for the same time each week. It was an open exchange, but with structure. The purpose was to keep the group informed and for project delegation. Supervisors from different functional work groups were put together on some projects that helped us gain new knowledge, and prepared us for bigger things ahead.
In most jobs you get a copy of your job description, sometimes called your Major Job Objective (MJO), when you start your job and you never see it again. Well that is not very effective. The only thing worse is not to have a description at all.
We designed our own description at least once a year. My manager/mentor talked with me about a company need and how she thought I could help. Next I wrote a draft of the details. Together we made a job description. I felt I owned the position. Best of all it was a living document evolving over time.
A career mentor can help you make the most of your current position by setting personal stretch goals. Reaching those goals helps prepare you for the next level.
The aspects of our relationship that lifted it to the level of mentorship were trust and sharing. My mentor got to know me, and my capabilities and goals. She recommended high profile projects, and allowed me face time with key people inside and outside the company. We each trusted that the other was loyal and had the others best interest in mind.
A good mentor is knowledgeable, generous, a good communicator and committed to the relationship. I hope you're lucky enough to have such a person step into your life. However, in most cases you'll need to recruit one.
Here are some tips for finding a career mentor, soliciting their support and making the relationship meaningful.
Finding a Career Mentor
- Don't expect your manager to be your mentor. It is unique for your manager to also be your mentor.
- Look for senior people within your company who have been along a career path similar to yours. Also look beyond your company to partners, affiliates and related companies. You'd be wise to avoid corporate competitors in your search. Professional associations are a good way to meet top people in your field.
- Find an individual who shares your values, workstyle, and sense of humor.
- Choose someone you admire, and who is uplifting.
Asking for Their Support
- Before you ask for support, prepare a plan. What exactly do you expect of them? If you're asking this person to commit, they need to know what they are getting into. It is not reasonable to ask for more than one meeting a month. Define the type of guidance you need. For example, you may want a promotion to manager and want help creating an action plan. Be as specific as you can.
- Invite the potential mentor to meet to discuss your career. Assure them that you are not asking for a job, you're just looking for some advice.
- At the meeting, define the relationship and your vision. Don't assume the person you are asking will say, "yes." If you sense they are not sure, ask them to think about it overnight. Give them room to say, "no." If they feel pressured to accept, you may not get the level of participation you want.
Making the Relationship Meaningful
- Define your relationship together, including how often and how long you will meet. Stay within the set parameters.
- Respect your mentor's time. Don't call him or her with questions. Except for unusual situations that cannot wait, save it for your scheduled meeting.
- Stay organized to make the most of your sessions. Keep a notebook binder with the following categories: Mentor Questions, My Action Plan, Mentor Notes/Emails, Items for Discussion and Meeting Notes.
- If you are given an assignment, get it done on time and ready to present in a professional way.
- Be early for meetings. If you can afford it, pay for any meals or beverages served during your meeting. Even if your mentor is Bill Gates, don't expect your mentor to pick up the check.
- Be open minded. You may get feedback you do not like. Take it in the spirit given.
- Share your appreciation. Your mentor is giving up precious time and sharing valuable knowledge with you. Offer to help them in return. Occasional babysitting or helping with research are just some examples.
When you study with a career mentor, you benefit from their experience. That experience can give you the advantage that moves you ahead. As you reach your career goals, don't forget to repay the favor by helping others achieve their career goals.
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