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Although the idea of having a career mentor is not new, the notion has grown in popularity in recent years. I had heard the word thrown around before, but I wasn’t quite aware of the popularity of this tactic until I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, last year. Successful professionals from a variety of backgrounds have endorsed mentorship and credited these types of relationships for a portion of their achievements.

So, what purpose does a mentor serve?

The Balance defines a mentor as someone who “becomes a source of wisdom, teaching, and support” for young professionals seeking guidance. Ideally, this would be a person that you could go to and ask for advice when facing work-related dilemmas and they could guide you based on their own experiences. While not completely necessary, it helps if this person works or has worked in the same field to help you get a better idea of workplace expectations as your career progresses.

How would having a mentor help me?

Mentors will often be able to provide insight on a variety of situations. As an example, if you’re trying to choose between two different job offers, a professional that’s been in the field longer would probably be more experienced in this area and know some key things to consider when weighing your options. Mentors could also answer questions that you have regarding specific projects, connect you with their networking contacts or inform you of job opportunities. It’s a good idea to have someone in your corner who understand what is and what is not ethical in the workplace, too, especially when you’re first starting to venture into the workforce.

A good mentor will know you well enough to understand what areas you excel in and be able to identify your points of weakness. While it may be easy to see faults in others, it can be difficult to see them in yourself, Elena Bajic, Founder and CEO of Ivy Exec, points out. Your mentor should be candid with you to help you grow as a professional.

This sounds great, but how do I get a mentor?

As Sheryl Sandberg mentioned in her book, young professionals – especially women – have the tendency to ask, “Will you be my mentor?” While being straightforward is a good skill to have in your toolkit, this approach may not get you the results you want. Instead, you might catch the person off guard if the two of you are not close and wind up in an awkward conversation. The best way to develop a mentor-mentee relationship is the same as with any other type of relationship – understand that it is a two-way street and let it develop organically.

This person will be going out of their way to share their insights and experiences with you, so it’s important that you remain courteous of their time. Be willing to work with their schedule, and refrain from focusing the conversation on you. Acquiring a mentor is about developing the relationship with the person over time by building trust among the two of you.

Your mentor should be someone within your network that is further along in their career than you, but they do not have to be several years your senior. The Muse has a great article about three different types of mentors that acknowledges there is value in connecting with people who are just a year ahead of you in their career. Kathy Caprino advises that you connect with someone who would find the relationship to be “mutually-rewarding,” whether it be a person who used to have your current job title or someone who has a title you aspire to have many years down the road.

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