Make the Most of Mentoring

mentoring_article By: Karla Taylor

Your relationship with a mentor is likely to be one of the most important of your career. Here are five steps to help you develop and nurture it.

If you’re like most people, you relish the idea of having a mentor, a trusted adviser to help you navigate professional life. But what’s the best way to find a mentor and get the most from the relationship? These tips can get you started.

Know what you need. Would your ideal mentor provide you with deeper industry knowledge? Advice about how to ace your first management job? Insights on handling office politics? The relationship will be more productive if you have a clear goal going in.

Just remember: Mentors are not an employment service. They also are not the people to call for reassurance about how super you are. “That’s what friends and family are for,” says Carol Vernon, a certified executive coach. A mentor’s value lies in providing an informed viewpoint, not job leads or cheerleading.

Explore both formal and informal ways to find a mentor. Many college alumni associations and professional organizations have programs to link volunteer mentors with mentees. ASAE members can use Collaborate, the association’s private social network, to seek out a match based on several criteria. Other opportunities are available through ASAE’s Diversity Executive Leadership Program.

A mentor’s value lies in providing an informed viewpoint, not job leads or cheerleading.

An informal mentoring relationship comes about less predictably. Often it starts at work or through a professional connection. You may not even realize you have a mentor until you notice “a click,” says Peter J. O’Neil, CAE, CEO at ASIS International, a security management association. The person has seen something promising in you and is investing the time and attention to nurture it.

“Co-create” the relationship. This is the term Vernon uses for arriving at a mutual understanding about how to work together. Talk honestly about

  • what you want to learn and how that fits with what your mentor wants to provide.
  • approximately how much time you’re asking for.
  • how long you anticipate the most intense part of the relationship may last (typically six to nine months, Vernon says).
  • meeting logistics, including when and where to talk.

Be accountable for your own success. Sometimes a mentor may need to be “upfront and honest, blunt even,” O’Neil says. For example, at a time when you think you’re ready to be a CEO, your mentor may perceive that you’re not yet a fully capable director. If you’re serious about learning from your mentor, you need to be able to hear difficult messages, respond appropriately, and “take responsibility yourself to mature and grow,” he says.

Demonstrate gratitude. Once your mentoring sessions have largely met your needs, the relationship will ebb. Don’t let it fade without an appropriate thank you. Treat your mentor to lunch or give an appropriate gift, such as a meaningful book. Vernon suggests that you also ask, “How can I help you?”

Even after your sessions have ended, “let your mentor know how you’re doing—not just when you have a problem but also when things are going well,” says O’Neil.

As Vernon notes, “It’s truly one of the great sources of professional satisfaction when someone says, ‘Talking to you was a turning point for me.’ ” By this point, your mentor has given you so much. Staying in touch is a fitting gift to give in return.

Karla Taylor

Karla Taylor is a communications consultant in Bethesda, Maryland.