You can ask anyone who has been fortunate enough to have a great mentoring relationship, "why was it great?", and you'll find common themes. "They listened and cared", "they gave advice", "they were honest", "they were dependable", and "they were respectful". Often the protégé doesn't speak on behalf of the time and effort they themselves put in to make it work. It could be because they were fortunate enough to have a Mindful Mentor leading the relationship, or they're just too humble to take credit for the success of the relationship. The problem is, this is deceiving to the outside viewer who craves the benefits of a strong mentor. It can lead them to believe that "luck" instead of intentional effort is what breeds a strong mentoring relationship, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Coming from a "lead your career" mindset which assumes you have untapped and unfettered potential to shape and influence your own career, we'll examine how to create a successful mentoring relationship.
Identifying a Mentor
This is not an easy step, and most people don't know where to start. Choose incorrectly and you may do more damage than good. So what do you do? You have to ask yourself a few questions: "Where do you want to be in the next couple years?", "What steps in your career are you struggling with?", "Do you have potential mentors in mind?", "How much time are you will to dedicate to a mentoring relationship?".
Depending on how you answer those questions, you should be able to narrow the scope of what you're looking to get out of a mentoring relationship. Now you need to vocalize to your network what you're looking for, and start seeking out recommendations of a mentor that may fit your needs. I believe you'll have much more value if you choose someone who has "walked in the shoes you're looking to get into" recently. If they're too far removed they can fill the role of a sponsor, but you wont get the benefit of them helping you to navigate the day to day grind that you're looking for in a mentor. This is not to discredit coaching or sponsorship, but if you're seeking mentorship….you're seeking mentorship.
If you are able to answer the questions above, and know what you're looking for but feel you still don’t know who to reach out to, you are not alone. Maybe you're looking at changing careers, just started a new one, or maybe you just don't have an established network, it's all good! These situations may also call for a level of vulnerability on your part. Of course there is LinkedIn, but there are also many other online platforms with the focus on mentorship. Some require paid accounts, others do not. I've never used these platforms so I cannot testify to their effectiveness. I would assume with the more virtual workplace that we're currently in, they're probably effective. Another way to find a mentor is to seek out professional societies, or groups that share the affinity for what you're looking for and join them!
Initiating The Relationship
Prior to ever reaching out to your prospective mentor, you must collect your thoughts and have a plan ready. You don't need a detailed meeting schedule with talking points and agendas, but you do need to be ready to talk about : "Why you're interested in them to be your mentor" (flattery goes a long way), "What you're hoping to get out of the mentoring relationship", and you should convey your commitment to the success of the relationship.
Once you have all that lined up, you just need to set up a time to chat with them. Be flexible with their schedule and be content with virtual meetings. If this is the first time you've ever spoke with the person, or you don't have an established relationship, do not get discouraged if they don't respond to your first call or email. At this point, you may not be hitting their priority radar. Don't give up if you believe this is a key mentor that will help you lead your career, get creative. Send a hand written note, swing by their desk or think up another way to get and keep their attention.
Getting The Most Out of The Relationship
Early in your relationship, work with your mentor to set expectations and accountability measures. "What is the ultimate goal or purpose for your mentoring relationship?", "How often do you plan to meet?", and "What does success look like?". Try to have consistency with how your meetings are structured to ensure you stay on task. I would recommend with starting your meetings with a recap of any of the previous meetings action items and status. Remember your mentor is with you on this journey and they would like to know how it's going as well. I would also recommend ending your meetings with a recap of the main points in the discussion, and calling out the action items to ensure accountability. Always come to your meetings with prepared questions. You may not get to all of them, but it will keep the conversation flowing. Throughout the entirety of the meeting, take notes! Tons of notes! Notes help you remember what was talked about, and lets the mentor know you're valuing their time.
One bit of advice I rarely see, yet is very important, is to not fall victim of the sunk cost fallacy. If your relationship is heading nowhere, they're not holding up their end of the bargain, or you're not getting the guidance you were looking for, start the search over again and move on. Cordially wrap up your conversations, embrace the awkward if need be and let them know that it's not working out, or your priorities have shifted, and work to identify another mentor.
Throughout the entirety of the relationship you must remain grateful. This person is choosing to dedicate their time and effort to your success. Don't take this for granted. Be respectful, courteous and show gratitude.
Most mentoring relationships do not last into perpetuity. Ideally you set up a prospective timeline when initiating the relationship, so at some point the mentoring relationship will either substantially wind down or come to an end. Consider saying thank you in a way that speaks to them. That could be a gift, hand written thank you, or a shoutout from whatever platform they mentored you into achieving.
In my opinion the best way to thank them, is to remember the impact they've had on your career. That impact is permanent. The way you approach work, situations, or consider options has been changed. The ripple effects throughout your life due to this relationship will still be present two, five, or even ten years down the road even if you can't directly see them. So, stay grateful.
This approach is not only reserved for those looking to build a mentoring relationship from scratch. Many groups, organizations or companies have programs that assign you a mentor. Whether that mentor volunteered or was voluntold, you can still get the most of you’re the relationship and show gratitude by following this approach.
I ask two things of you this week:
If you are looking at making a career move in any way, and believe you may be a good mentor a way from success, give the process a try and lead your career!
If you're already in a mentoring relationship ask yourself if you believe you're getting the most out of your relationship, and be honest. If you are, I'm very happy for you and hope you regularly show your gratitude! If you're not, use the process above to evaluate where you think you may have fallen flat, and fix it!
Obviously you don't have to do any of this. You can just wait for the perfect mentor to walk up, find you, grab you by the hand and lead you to the next step in your career. You do that and I'll keep imagining what I would do if I won the lottery, even though I never buy a ticket. Cheers.
Note: All of the opinions expressed in this article are my own, and are not a reflection of the viewpoint of my employer.