How to Look for a Mentor
When you really need help with a career-related matter, what do you do? Do you reach out to friends and keep your fingers crossed one of them comes through with good advice? Do you ask the Magic 8 Ball app on your phone? Or, do you let it all out to a trusty, canine pal and look for clues about what action to take based on the number of tail wags?
In a situation like this, it can help to have a mentor. If you’ve got one—that’s great. If you don’t, your question may be: how do I get one?
Before you head out on a hunt for a mentor, know this: if you’re going to do it right, it takes some work. But so do most things in life worth having, right? All the effort you put in will pay off in the end if you break the process down into three steps—and do your homework for each one.
The first step, according to the article “How to Find a Business Mentor,” is to be very clear of what you need from a mentor—do you need help with a particular project or advice on how to advance your career? Do you need to meet once a week or once a month? Know your “must-haves” versus qualities that are a “bonus” or good to have. Just like looking for a job that’s a good fit, you and your mentor will be the right fit if you share some compatibilities. But don’t forget personality; if you need someone who doesn’t pull any punches, and will hand you feedback that’s brutally honest, then someone who takes a more diplomatic approach may frustrate more than help you. Don’t shortchange yourself by taking shortcuts with this step.
The second step, as outlined in the article, is to conduct informational interviews with the various candidates you are considering. There’s no need to inform them right away that they are gunning for the role of your mentor right away; have a meeting to determine if there’s potential for a mentoring relationship. This is an especially important step when you are considering a mentor who is outside your trusty sphere of family and friends. A good tip to keep in mind once you’ve completed this process, according to Lois Zachary, the president of Leadership Development Services in Phoenix is this: “Go back to your criteria, that way you don't get blown away by chemistry and you stay focused on your business or personal reasons for wanting a mentor.”
But what if you can’t decide on just one person? The good news is that you don’t have to—you can have more than one mentor. If you discover that you like having multiple perspectives, then allow yourself the option to reach out to a couple of different people in your network. This is where “reverse mentoring” may be a good concept to keep in mind. Made popular by Jack Welch, the idea centers on the fact that “older” professionals can sometimes benefit from younger professionals when it comes to learning new trends, gaining fresh perspectives, and learning how emerging technologies are changing the business world. No need to limit yourself to a specific age group.
What if you’ve identified someone who you think would make a great mentor, but you’re afraid to ask? Consider a quote from the article. Martin Lehman, a volunteer mentor with the Service Corps of Retired Executives Association (SCORE), which offers mentoring services to business owners across the United States had this to say: “There's no question, I'm learning every day [as a mentor]. That's why we do this. Also, it keeps the brain going.”
In “Finding the Right Mentor for You,” Kathy Kram, professor of organizational behavior at Boston University, echoes Lehman’s sentiment: “In today's context, mentors learn new skills and competency themselves […] It's a chance to revitalize their own learning." In other words, it’s a two-way street; your mentor might even thank you one day.
Francis Flynn, a professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford School of Business has studied why people are driven to help others, and what psychologists call “prosocial behavior.” In his article “Ask and Your Likely to Get Help” Flynn writes: “New research verifies the old adage, ‘Ask and you shall receive.’ [People] tend to grossly underestimate how likely others are to agree to requests for assistance […] Our research should encourage people to ask for help and not assume that others are disinclined to comply.” Flynn and his team of researchers believe that most askers fail to consider their request from the point of view of the “potential helper,” who most of the time is ready and willing to lend a hand—especially when it comes to sharing lessons from the school of hard knocks.
Tuck Flynn’s research-based tidbit in your back pocket, along with a few other tips to keep in mind as you head on your quest to find a mentor (or two): don’t monopolize conversations, prepare thoughtful questions, listen attentively, write thank you notes, and most of all, be especially considerate of their time. Happy hunting!