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How to Find, Keep, and Benefit from a Mentor

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Every relationship goes through phases, and the mentor/mentee relationship is no exception. According to research in the Academy of Management Journal, those phases are initiation, cultivation, separation, and redefinition.

Initiation is the “honeymoon” phase; both mentor and mentee envision the best possible outcomes and give the best possible interpretation to every interaction. During cultivation, the relationship is tested against reality. Separation occurs when the parties agree to end the relationship or outside circumstances make continuation too challenging. Redefinition occurs when both or either of the parties re-evaluates the mentor/mentee relationship or find they need to adjust to a new relationship; for example, if the mentee has been promoted to a peer or superior of the mentor.

Your awareness of these natural phases in the relationship will help you to be a better mentee and truly benefit from a mentor.

How to Find a Mentor

Before you start looking for a mentor, make sure you know your goals. Do you want to acquire hard or soft skills, knowledge, or opportunities for advancement? Do you want guidance on resolving a particular work issue or on leading a specific team or project? Are you trying to manage your stress or time better? Are you rethinking your career or your life? Some issues may be better handled by a coach, trainer, or therapist.

Once you are clear about your goals and that mentorship is the best choice, find out if your company has a formal mentoring program you might apply for. Although a formal program isn’t necessary, it may offer valuable support and shorten the process of locating a mentor. Whether or not you establish a mentor relationship through a formal program, ask for a trial period to determine your compatibility with the mentor—and the mentor’s compatibility with you. Regardless of how careful you are in your choice of the mentor, you may find that you would benefit from a different mentor.

When you are looking for a mentor:

  • Widen your search. Use your network, both within and outside work. With today’s technology, even geographic limits can be overcome. You may benefit from a mentor who is in a different business unit, company, or even field and who challenges your perceptions of what a mentor should look like (including age, race, and gender).
  • Seek someone who is excited about advancing your career but knows how to listen more than direct. You want someone to guide your thinking and sharpen your decision-making ability, not take over from you.
  • Do not settle. Talk to the potential mentor long enough to get a sense of your compatibility and the mentor’s interest in you.
  • Set realistic expectations for yourself and your mentor; expect and request honest feedback. You want a mentor, not a magician or best friend.
  • Make sure your chosen mentor is trustworthy, as the best mentorship relationships include sharing personal information that you may prefer to remain private.

Once you find a potential mentor, ask for time to talk with them and during that time ask if they would be willing to mentor you. Thank them for considering your request, whether or not it works out. The key to maximizing the benefits of a mentor is to demonstrate respect and professionalism from the start.

TIP: Great mentors may be any age, race, gender, or background, but they all have expertise, enthusiasm, and a willingness to share. 

How to Keep and Benefit from a Mentor

A mentor is doing you a favor, and you should acknowledge that by deferring to the mentor’s schedule; using the time productively; and following through on any information they offer or next steps they suggest. You should be prepared with an agenda for each meeting, based on your previous discussions; the agenda will keep the meetings on track and to demonstrate your commitment.

A mentorship is only as valuable as the time and energy you put into it. To benefit from a mentor, you want to:

  • Keep your goals achievable, realistic, and concrete. Set criteria for yourself on judging whether you have met a goal. For example, “improve my project leadership” is a very broad goal that you might break down into such actionable items as “improve my scheduling skills” or “learn how to decide if I can delegate a task.”
  • Meet consistently. You may meet in person or over video, email, or phone. But the number and time of the meetings should be consistent, whether weekly or monthly or quarterly. You may want to set an end date, which can be extended if you both agree.
  • Follow up. When you and your mentor discuss next steps, it is up to you to make notes, take the appropriate actions, and report back to the mentor, all in a reasonable time. It is not the mentor’s job to follow up with you. You drive the relationship.
  • Take advantage of opportunities offered by your mentor. A mentor might introduce you to other people and widen your network; show you around a division or industry you haven’t visited before, or otherwise present you with new opportunities. Grab them.
  • Be professional and respectful. Treat your mentor as you would have your mentor treat you. But welcome feedback. If you turn the mentorship into a battleground and lack the self-confidence to accept feedback, you will lose your mentor.
  • Demonstrate a willingness to learn on your own. If you need to find out information on a subject, try researching it yourself first and looking to your mentor to fill in any gaps or correct any misunderstandings, rather than depending on the mentor to research for you.
  • Ask questions and listen to the answers.
  • Consider if you would benefit from having more than one mentor. You may need different mentors to help with different goals, especially if you are looking for advice in different areas of expertise (financial, management, organizational, product-specific, skill-specific). You may decide that certain topics are better handled with a coach or a psychologist.

TIP: Mentors expect their mentees to value their time, experience, and feedback. As the mentee, you lead the relationship and set its tone.

Key Takeaways

To find, keep, and benefit from a member, you must have specific, actionable goals in mind; be open to feedback and guidance; and be willing to put in the work.

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