You may not run into anyone like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Albus Dumbledore, or Oprah Winfrey at your workplace, but if you are familiar with any of them, you know something about mentors. Impressively wise and undeniably successful, mentors advise and nurture the lucky individuals who have come under their wing. In fact, it may seem that without a mentor, you will be at a serious disadvantage. So how do you find a mentor, and why would anyone want to take the job in the first place?
First, a definition: mentoring is a learning partnership that facilitates the professional and personal growth of both people in the mentoring relationship. A mentor can also be a supervisor, but does not have to be. Successful mentoring relationships can occur within pairs who have similar personalities and interests, but both partners can learn a great deal when the mentor and the mentee have different temperaments and backgrounds.
You may think that the way to go is to have one and only one mentor throughout your career, that is no longer the case. One size does not fit all, especially when it is the norm to change jobs and even careers several times during your working years. Moreover, there are different types of advice and support that you can use from different types of mentors at different stages in your career.
Connecting with a mentor can happen in different ways. I have been fortunate in my career to have been mentored by two of my direct supervisors. This can happen when there is good personal chemistry. When the junior person works hard and demonstrates an openness to feedback, then the mentor believes the relationship can be beneficial to both.
In some organizations, mentoring programs are formalized and employees are assigned mentors. Having a mentor assigned to you can be great, and sometimes these relationships grow to the point where the mentor becomes a sponsor. A sponsor is a senior professional who is willing to put you up for promotion and/or introduce you to their network, and otherwise actively work to advance your career. Remember that a mentor is an important advisor and coach, but does not necessarily take action to get you into your next job.
If your boss is not an appropriate mentor and your organization has no formal program, you will need to find a mentor on your own. It is not cool to say to a senior colleague “Will you be my mentor?” This is a relationship that needs to be developed. If there is someone in your organization or in your field who you admire, try to get involved in projects or initiatives that include that person as well. If this isn’t possible, ask your potential mentor to meet with you for advice, and bring specific questions. If this meeting goes well, you are on your way to developing a mentor.
So why would anyone voluntarily spend time helping another person with their career? When I discuss this with colleagues who, like me, have mentored new career counselors, we agree that we benefit from these relationships as much as the mentees do. As a mentor, I practice my skills as a supervisor, teacher and coach. I learn new perspectives, especially when my mentee and I are in different generations—for example, how that generation is using technology, especially social media. Then there is the pure enjoyment of helping someone grow professionally, and being able to be there as that growth happens.
As you’re starting out, be open to opportunities to be mentored, but keep in mind that mentoring may be an even greater career building experience.
Susan Loffredo has been an Associate Director of Career Development at Northeastern University since 2001. She has studied French literature, earned degrees in counseling and journalism, worked in corporate, non-profit and educational settings and is the mother of two daughters. She has benefitted from both mentoring and being mentored.