Growing Together: Finding a Mentor or Becoming a Mentor

What is a mentor?   The definition of a mentor is an experienced and trusted adviser or an experienced person in a company, college, or school who trains and counsels new employees or students.  A mentor can either be a formal relationship where a school or a company may actually “assign” you a mentor, or it may be more informal where you simply consider someone your mentor, though it may never have been actually discussed.  It can also be anywhere between those examples in the level of formality.  A mentor is different than a “role model.”  A role model could be someone you never even met, or perhaps even a fictional character that you read about in a book, someone who you look up to or strive to grow to have similar skill sets or accomplishments.  A mentor should be a real person, who you have met and do respect.   A mentor is someone who you have the ability to talk to, ask questions of, and they willingly provide advice and counsel to you.

Why do we need a mentor?  Even if you are a genuine driven woman, it may be hard to see where you need to improve.  A mentor will give you the feedback on where you might grow so that you can go further along the path toward your goal.  Assuming the mentor is a formal relationship agreed upon by both parties at an organization, the mentor’s experience in the company may help you avoid mistakes and focus your efforts on a path that is good for both you and the organization.  This will likely lead to upward mobility and open up options that you have not yet considered for yourself.

What can a mentor help us with?

  • They will push you to learn new skills and encourage constant learning
  • They provide advice and boundaries for appropriate behavior
  • They will be able to offer you assignments in new areas or departments to challenge you
  • They may keep you from making the same mistakes they made
  • They will introduce you to people you should know and sing your praises
  • For women in male dominated fields, if you have a female mentor, they will give you good examples of how you can succeed and may help you navigate related challenges
  • They will provide you with honest, constructive feedback to help you improve
  • They will understand what it takes to succeed at your organization and they will offer you concrete guidance to help you

Should our mentors change over time?  You do need a different mentor at different steps in your life and career.  You may have a mentor in high school, someone that helps with college selection, a different mentor in college that understands your chosen field of study, at an internship during your transition from college to the workforce, and then at each organization and level as you grow – your mentors may change.  If you are an entrepreneur, a mentor is just as critical for you, as it is for someone working in a more corporate setting.  Even though you may be a company of one or a few, imagine all the questions you have and advice you need to start and then scale your business throughout the years.  Entrepreneurs should search out someone who has already started a successful business, maybe with a similar business model.  In the long run, you may be able to help each other.  There are places to do this, such as, small business workshops, chamber of commerce events, or conferences for your industry.

Now that we understand that we do need a mentor, what are some ways that you can find the mentor who is right for you?

  1. Formal assignments: It is becoming more common today that organizations will formally assign mentors, especially to new employees.  The military has also had a formal process of assigning mentors to everyone in the last 10-15 years.  This is helpful, as the mentor will answer all the questions that new employees have and will start the transition into the new company off on a good foot.  The con to assigning everyone formal mentors is that they may assign mentors that are not a good fit with your personality, or they may assign people as mentors who do not take the role seriously or do not have the personal skills to be good mentors.  Companies should take care in who they choose for these critical mentoring roles.  This is one way to keep (or lose) good talent.  If you assign a bright young person a negative or poor mentor, it may immediately taint the person and they may quickly look for other employment.
  2. Mutually agreed upon formality: Sometimes when a good leader has a bright, hardworking person they notice in the workplace, they will deliberately decide to take that person under their wing and begin formally mentoring them.  In this case, the leader may approach the mentee and ask them if they have a mentor or if they are interested in being mentored and if so, they will sit up more formal mentoring sessions.  What is in it for the leader in this case?  Think of how quickly 5 to 10 years flies by.  These senior leaders know they will not be there forever, and if they care about their organization, they need to make sure to prepare new leaders to take their place.  There are countless stories of good CEOs who did not prepare successors and their companies did not continue greatness after the departure of that particular CEO.  (Read “Good to Great”, by Jim Collins.)  This is one of the most amazing types of mentoring.  It is inspiring for the mentee, and it is excellent for the entire organization.  (Assuming all the leaders of the organization are doing the same thing, and assuming they may each be mentoring more than one person.)  This will create an entire organization of leaders who are well versed in the entire enterprise and offer many options when very senior positions become open in the company.
  3. Informal: This type of mentor is someone you look up to, and they may know it, but most importantly, you respect them and you know they are willing to talk with you or answer your questions.  This could be a teacher at school, a counselor, a friend of you parents, a more senior co-worker, etc.  These people are all around, and if you really think about it, you know who these people are in your life.  Take the time to talk to them more often.

How do you get started?  If you are reading this and you are thinking that you may be someone who would be interested in being a good mentor to others,  you can get started simply by finding someone in your own organization that is eager and will likely be open to feedback with a strong desire to grow.  Reach out to them and if they agree, set up regular mentoring sessions.  Initially, the mentor should set clear expectations.  There are other ways to be a mentor, in large organizations, you may be able to let your employer know you are interested in mentoring and you want to be part of the formal mentoring process.  Being a mentor is also good for the mentor, as it will show you are investing in organizational growth and are taking on additional roles within your company.

Are there any specific qualification or skills required to BE a mentor? A good mentor will be:

  • An excellent role model, leading by example
  • Well respected within the organization
  • Someone with a positive attitude and enthusiasm for the field
  • A constant learner who values learning and organizational growth
  • Honest, providing useful and constructive feedback
  • Discrete, you know you can trust them and open up to them

You can see finding a mentor to guide your growth or becoming a mentor to help others is good for everyone.  If we all take on this mindset for ourselves and others, imagine how our company cultures would transform and how we would all grow – together.