The Art of Finding a Mentor

BlogHer Original Post

Having mentors for your career or business can be one of the best things you ever do. These people can help you get where you want to go and will share their lessons learned as they got to being successful in their own right.

What exactly is a mentor and how is it different than a coach or consultant?

A mentor is someone who has done what you are seeking to do in the same general field (it can be as specific as a position title or as general as entrepreneur). This person will share their story, lessons learned on what they did to be successful, and make suggestions for you based on their personal experience.

A coach on the other hand is skilled at being a coach and not necessarily in the field of business in which you are looking to excel. They may or may not have experience in that career. It doesn't matter as their role is to be an advocate for your success (whatever route you choose) and work with you to gain clarity, define goals, overcome obstacles, provide accountability, and generally kick your butt in a ruthlessly compassionate way.

A consultant is someone you hire for an outside opinion or to augment expertise you don't have on your own. They excel at a skill and you hire them for that skill (to actually do what you need them to do).

While I believe everyone should have a coach (admittedly as a coach I am biased, but always walk my talk by having my own coach). I also believe that having mentors (emphasis on the plural) is critical to your success whether you work for a company or are your own boss.

One of the reasons people with mentors are often more successful comes down to the fact that they are often more self-directed. It takes foresight and confidence to seek out and secure a mentor. Consider this from The Job Virgin:

Consider this, you must have the guts to go up face to face with someone you are considering as having a mentor and make that important initial step in asking for their time and advice. This shows confidence on your part but also a sincere desire to learn. However, don’t be forceful, no one owes you anything so remember that, you have to be humble when you ask. From the very start, you have to display an incredible work ethic so they know that you are serious about learning.

As a result, both the mentor and protege benefit through this symbiotic relationship. This is due to the protege gaining the insights and subtleties of their chosen path along with the knowledge of being able to navigate where others with less experience would fall and also, this allows for the mentor to strengthen and hone their leadership abilities.

It takes not only courage to ask but the tact to know how to ask someone for their time and advice. In 5 Ways Not to Cry at Work we are reminded that sometimes you want to be a little less direct in how you ask for a mentor:

Never Ask Someone, "Will You Be My Mentor?"
This question is the workplace equivalent of, "Will you be my boyfriend?" Having mentors is an important part of successfully navigating one's career, but asking someone this question point-blank will only freak them out. Instead, approach potential mentors in a more organic way. Be specific with what you want and ask something like, "Hey, can I sit down with you at some point to get your advice on a new project I'm working on?"

I agree with this indirect approach only to a point, however. If you want to build a long term mentoring relationship with someone at some point you have to say the M-word. Just maybe not right away.

So, how do you find one to ask? If you work for a large organization, check out any formal or informal mentoring program they might offer. Based on my experience these programs are never a substitute for finding your own best fit mentor; however, they can be extremely beneficial. They teach you how to have a successful mentoring relationship and open the door to meeting and working with new and potentially influential people within your organization.

Even if you are self-employed you can often find other mentors through professional organizations and networking groups. Some programs may be more formal than others, but in all cases you must take the initiative and leadership if you want the relationship to happen and to work.

Some good tips for finding your own mentors can be found in this article by Penelope Trunk called "How I got my current mentor":

Getting mentors is difficult because it’s just like dating: You have to invest a lot of time in a lot of people to find the ones who will really change your life. Over the years, I’ve had lots of different types of mentors.

Here are two of her tips that I find very useful:

1. Recognize someone who thinks in ways that complement you.
I was interviewing a guy for my column in the Boston Globe, and I asked him, as I often do, if he had any friends who would be interesting to talk with. He gave me Chris Yeh’s name. I was immediately struck by Chris’s ability to talk on a wide range of topics that I care about a lot. And as a Harvard Business school grad living in Palo Alto, he brings a fresh perspective to my own.

4. Ask for a formal relationship.
When I started my company, I asked Chris to be an advisor. He said yes, and then he told me the best way to use advisors, based on his experience at his own companies: Call at times you know are easy for them to talk, keep them up to date, and ask them what you should be asking them about.

The first time I asked Chris, "What should I be asking you now?" I felt silly. After all, it’s a line he fed me. But now I use it with him all the time, and it’s actually an invitation for him to tell me what he thinks I’m missing, which is information I wouldn’t get if I directed the conversation the whole time.

You can read all her tips as well as grab a link to a seven step plan for finding a mentor in the post.

Perhaps the single most important thing you can do before you seek out a mentor is determine why you want a mentor and specifically what you need. In "Finding a Mentor in the 21st Century Cathy Goodwin asks those very questions:

Before you begin your search, ask, "What do I want from a mentor? Information? Moral support? Ongoing encouragement? And can I obtain these benefits by paying a coach or consultant? If I stumble across a mentor, will she be able to provide these benefits in a helpful way?"

And are you prepared to be a good mentee? Will you listen carefully, act on advice (or be prepared to explain why you won't), and express appreciation to your mentor? Will you avoid making unreasonable demands?

The good news is over time you can have a number of different mentors and multiple mentors at any given time helping you with different aspects of your career and business. The key is to get clear on what you want and then get the courage to ask.

Paula Gregorowicz plucks women business owners off the hamster wheel of overwhelm, struggle, and self-doubt and guides them to a purposeful path of building authentic and successful businesses.

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