The reason I’m a published writer today is that my mentor, Monique, drew on her contacts to get me the opportunity and encouraged me to make it successful. She doesn’t play the role of mentor in any formal way, but ever since I met her—when I was eight years old and she was in a relationship with one of my older brothers—she’s been my go-to gal for advice on being a woman, a writer, and a woman writer. And even when she’s not dispensing her wisdom in conversation, she is my example of a woman with integrity, a sense of adventure, and sheer intelligence.
We all need mentors in our lives. They lend us their experiences, helping us face new ventures and achieve success when our insecurities and naiveté keep us from moving forward alone. But the mentor-protegé relationship is one of the hardest to cultivate; it can be difficult to find the right advisor to complement your personality and even more challenging to forge a bond that is comfortable, mutually beneficial, and lasting.
Why Have a Mentor?
Mentors lead us toward developing new talents and building self-awareness, through both advice and example. They also open doors for us, introducing us to their contacts and helping us build our own support networks. In today’s cutthroat corpsorate culture in particular, having a mentor within your company can help you better handle office politics.
If this arrangement is established correctly, mentors also benefit from it. By guiding others, they hone their leadership skills. In addition, since younger workers leave college with updated capabilities and familiarity with technology, mentors have an opportunity to expand their own competencies by reaping the wisdom of the young. Says Kathy Klam, associate professor of organizational behavior at Boston University School of Management and author of Mentoring at Work, “It’s a chance [for mentors] to revitalize their own learning.”
How Do I Get One?
The first step to embarking on any relationship is to assess yourself and your own needs. Clearly identify what you want from your mentor, as well as your limits. What skills do you want to acquire? How do you relate to others and what type of person would complement you?
Once you have a good idea of what qualities you seek, start your search for a mentor. Choosing your supervisor or someone with more professional experience than you have might seem like a logical approach, but it could be a conflict of interest, so you should broaden your scope. Jennifer Lawton, author of the Inc.com article “Mentors for Life,” reminds us that “mentors transcend careers.” Your mentor can be anyone, of any age, from any part of your life—search among your peers, family, clergy, professors, and local business owners. If none of these yield results, or you want a more formal arrangement, turn to a mentoring organization, such as the Service Corps of Retired Executives Association (SCORE ), Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs ), or the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO ). Another trend that’s gaining popularity is that some companies even have mentoring relationships built into their corporate hierarchies.
Also consider that you may need multiple mentors. We all have friends who satisfy different parts of our personalities; mentoring relationships are no different. Perhaps you have one mentor who encourages your career ambitions while another helps to cultivate your personal growth. Mentors are not “one size fits all.”
Where to Start?
It can be awkward to whip out a line like “Will you be my mentor?” (as if you ought to be on bended knee for the proposal), so initiating a mentor-protegé relationship is often the trickiest part. Remember that your mentor doesn’t necessarily need to know you perceive him or her in this way. You can simply pick someone with whom you already have a casual, friendly relationship and observe that person with the aim of learning from his or her example. My relationship with Monique needed no title; it grew simply as a friendship between two women of different ages, and it was natural for me to look up to her.
The title can be helpful, though, if you want the relationship to be more structured. Many people would be very pleased if you asked them to mentor you. After all, imitation is quite a compliment. And by calling the relationship by its proper name, you both know what to expect from your interactions. Try to gauge whether your intended mentor would be flattered or flustered by being put in such a position, then take action from there. Remember that the bond will last longer and be more mutually beneficial if it’s comfortable for both of you.
When speaking with your mentor, don’t hesitate to ask questions and listen well to the responses. Paying attention shows the other person that you have a genuine interest in what he or she has to say. Generally, if you demonstrate a hunger for counsel and guidance, mentors will be more than happy to feed you their wisdom.
Decide how much contact you want to have with your mentor, then come up with a regular, mutually convenient meeting schedule. Be cautious of being too clingy at the outset, but do be straightforward about wanting to build a relationship. You can accomplish this by doing something as purposeful as meeting for coffee once a week, or by simply making a point to say “good morning” at the office every day. You want proximity to become a habit for both of you, and you want that proximity to allow you to observe, converse, and learn.
Reap the Rewards
When we were children, we always had someone older to look to for answers, to tell us the difference between right and wrong. For adults—especially young adults—it can be jarring and frightening to suddenly be without that kind of guidance. Mentors don’t act in loco parentis, by any means, and you shouldn’t expect them to, but they do help us navigate the world when we need a guide. The mentor-protegé bond is truly one of the most rewarding, and these tips will help you forge one that is strong and satisfying. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Monique, and I’m confident that there is at least one life-changer out there for each of us.