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How To Choose And Work With A Mentor

Mentors have wisdom and share experiences. To me, that's what mentorship is: drawing from that wisdom and potentially learning from their successes.

No matter where you are in your career, you want a role that's fulfilling, and hopefully you also want to be inspired and challenged (most of us do). You also want to work for a company that eagerly supports your professional development.

How do you fulfill your dreams and aspirations — especially in this big, competitive world? How do you learn about the things you don't even know exist? How do you keep yourself motivated in the work you are doing now when all you feel like you do is push, push, push?

A mentor is a powerful way for you to invest in your professional growth and personal fulfillment.

Perhaps the company you work for now has a formal mentoring program — that is great; if you can get into them these programs help match you with a mentor. If your company doesn't have a formal program you will have to find a mentor outside of your company. And even if your company does have a formal program, I suggest you find one outside your company.

How do you choose and work with a mentor? Here are four quick explanations on how to find a mentor (or two), to help you answer questions and navigate your career.

Step 1. What do you want to learn?

What are your goals? What do you want to learn? Where do you need to be more motivated? The more you know about your objectives the more you will get out of your time with your mentor. A good place to start is to ask yourself what you want. Do you want:

  • To get better at what you do now? If so, think about people who do similar work as you.
  • To learn about other opportunities? If so, think about people who do work you think you might like.

A good mentor can be a great sounding board or devil's advocate.

Step 2. Explore and do research

Look around for a mentor prospect and explore mentor qualities. Is there someone you know who you admire (either in the company or not)? Is there someone you have heard of that you would like to learn from?

Perhaps you are looking for someone who will share your passion for social justice. Does your mentor prospect have a similar personality as you do? I recommend exploring their values and make sure they are similar to your own. What motivates them? The quality of your mentors is really important because you have to trust what they say and, likely, their discretion.

Not all mentors will be the same.

Before you both commit, I recommend you get to know each other. Being well-matched is important because you have to trust them and believe their advice is sound. Your mentor will have some influence on your future viewpoints, beliefs and behaviours. That said, I believe a great mentor is different than yourself. For example, if you are naturally cautious and reserved, a mentor who is a bit more aggressive may be helpful for you, one that you can rely on. Equally, if you jump first, ask questions later, a mentor who is more thoughtful and reflective may be a nice fit.

Not all mentors will be the same. So, if you are feeling really adventurous and may want more than one mentor. For example:

  • You may want to meet regularly with a successful person outside of your industry because their "fresh eyes" into your world may provide amazing insight.
  • You may want a mentor you can use for 911 emergency calls; someone who you can ask a specific question, get their honest opinion and then hang up. This is a bit unusual, but still highly valuable.

Step 3. Make the ask

Mentoring doesn't have to be complicated, expensive or formal. It can be as simple as agreeing to go for coffee once or twice a month and perhaps also being on-call if you suddenly have an emergency or a major question.

Ask your prospective mentor for a casual coffee or lunch. This is the time for each of you to evaluate the other. Let them know you admire them and are looking for a mentor and would like them to consider being that person. Share you expectations and abilities. If they seem interested but don't really have the time you were hoping for (so put them on call for emergency situations).

If you both agree to move forward, my recommendation is to keep your meetings somewhat informal... but have at least one preferred outcome per meeting. It's likely you are both going to be busy, so allow some flexibility. I find phone meetings surprisingly helpful and efficient... I didn't expect that at the start. I thought they would feel cold and impersonal. That said — I also recommend getting together fact-to-face from time to time

Step 4. Enjoy

Now is the time to ask questions and, most importantly, to listen. Soak information in, consider options, deliberate over alternatives and imagine new solutions. This is a time to enjoy become more.

Step 5. Know when to move on

As the song goes, "You got to know when to hold 'em / Know when to fold 'em." (My dad would be so proud.) At some point your mentor and you may decide to part, or you both may become best friends. Either way — be fully present. Don't hold on longer than you should; it may be that you've done as much as you can together and now it's time for them to help someone else. And it may be time for you to mentor someone and give back.

My guess is that if the two of you did what you were supposed to, you both will be mature enough to respect an ending. But also be on the lookout for your next mentor, you are never too experienced — you can always benefit from good advice.

One final thing

People love to help other people. It helps them feel fulfilled. It's how you ask and what you expect from them that will impact your success. Still, you have to mind your manners. After each meeting send a thank you note.

Having a mentor is not a one-way-street. You can't just take – you have to give back. Sure, you may pay for their coffee or tea, but especially if you are an inspiriting leader (or a leader already), this is a perfect place to practice showing gratitude and/or telling them they are making a difference in your perspective. Find ways to inspire them. In technical terms, this is called sharing intrinsic motivation... and as a leader you should make sure you are very familiar using intrinsic motivation.

Mentors have wisdom and share experiences. To me, that's what mentorship is: drawing from that wisdom and potentially learning from their successes.

Go... enjoy.


Happy communicating, mentoring, listening and learning.

Click here to learn more about Bruce Mayhew Consulting. We facilitate courses including email etiquette, time management, leadership, generational differences and more.

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