Sometimes people ask me this question in the same way I’d imagine they ask their friends if they should get a tattoo. Just because your friend’s got one, just because you’ve read a bit about it, and just because they’re out there doesn’t mean you should get a mentor. Not until you can articulate two vital things:
How clear you are about what you want from working with a mentor
How committed you are to putting in the effort and applying what you discuss with your mentor
Mentoring isn’t just ‘having a chat over coffee’ – that’s what family, friends or trusted colleagues are for, depending on the topic you want to chat about. Nor is it an opportunity to moan about work; there are other ways you can do this (if you must; I’d encourage you not to develop a regular habit though) that don’t involve taking up a mentor’s time and expertise. And mentoring definitely isn’t counselling; if you have personal, emotional and/or psychological wellbeing problems to discuss, you need to talk to someone who’s got all the necessary training, qualifications and professional standards to help you.
If you’ve got some ideas and ambitions – even better, if you’ve got some big and bold goals – then you could benefit from adding a mentor to your ‘personal board of directors’. The idea of a ‘personal board of directors’ is the brainchild of leadership researcher, teacher and best-selling author Jim Collins. See his classic piece ‘Looking out for number one’ for more.
As someone who’s been mentored (and still is, from time to time), is a mentor, trains new mentors and is proud to support SheSays Who’s Your Momma mentoring scheme, I’d like to offer you some tips if you get clear on those two vital points above, and decide that mentoring is for you.
- Set goals. By all means work with your mentor to knock your goals into shape, but meanwhile, before you’ve even approached potential mentors, establish some goals you want to achieve and by when.
- Short-list potential mentors and seek them out. Think carefully about how you’ll approach your potential mentors – why should they mentor you? Why them? What do you expect? What, if anything, can you give in return? What’s the best way to make initial contact? Via social media, email or an introduction?
- Set ground-rules together. In coaching land, this part of the relationship is called ‘contracting’, where both parties discuss and formalise how they’re going to work together. Hopefully you will have covered your goals at first meeting but if not, do so now.
- Step up and drive the process. You are driving this bus that is your career – not your mentor. It’s not a passive relationship; you need to drive it. Your mentor won’t hand you advice on a plate; you’ll need to work with them as a sounding board, figuring out options for you to try back in your own situation. By all means ask them for examples from their own career and experience about how they’ve handled something (that’s the idea), but don’t be surprised if they’re reticent about saying ‘do this/that’ – they’re not your boss. A good mentor uses skilful questions to get you thinking for yourself, away from the coalface of the day job.
- Show up. Respect your mentor’s time and commitment – and exceed their example with your own. Don’t cancel at the last minute. Your mentor will expect you to show up with examples of what you’ve achieved since you last met, what’s working well and not so well.
- Say thank you and mean it. Offer to help your mentor in some way.
You may find these blog posts useful: ‘Differences between coaching and mentoring – what’s best for you?, ‘Boost your self-awareness – and your performance’