Career Coach: How to pick the right mentor

April 3, 2011

People often asked me if they really need a mentor at work. The answer is “yes, if you want to succeed.” Research has long documented the benefits of mentoring for protégés. Protégés report more promotions, higher incomes, higher job and career satisfaction, and greater job involvement and commitment to the firm than those not being mentored.

Given the benefits of having a mentor, the next question is how to acquire one. Before you ask someone to be your mentor, a few suggestions are in order:

First, demonstrate effective performance on the job. Higher-level managers are much more likely to take a rising star under their wing than an employee who doesn’t look like he or she will be around very long. They look at your actual job performance as well as your potential for success based on your capabilities.

Second, think about what you hope to get out of the mentoring relationship. Write down your learning goals. Remember that mentoring should be about your longer-term professional and technical development, not just how you can get hired for a specific job.

Third, if you’ve had previous mentoring relationships before, think about what made them successful or not. This will help you to think about what you would do differently or similarly in a new mentoring relationship.

Fourth, do some research on the person you want to ask to be your mentor. Check the individual’s professional profile on a site such as LinkedIn, Plaxo or Facebook. Many executives have told me they get really disturbed by people who ask for mentoring yet really don’t know much about their background.

Finally, when you do approach someone, let him know how much you admire his own career success and want to talk with him to get his advice. Your goal should not be getting that person to hire you for a specific job. Also, remember that if the person is successful, he is probably very busy. So, be respectful of his time.

What qualities should you look for in an effective mentor?

Look for higher-level managers or peers with more work experience to provide mentoring. They should be successful in their field or as leaders and highly respected. They need to be a positive role model for you.

Once you identify the people you want, make sure they are willing to share their skills, knowledge and expertise with you. Pick people who seem to take a personal interest in helping you succeed and feel invested in you.

Given the busy schedules of potential mentors, don’t rely on just one person. Pick several people to serve as mentors; maybe someone in your own department, someone in another department in the firm, and someone in your field yet in another company. Consider them your own board of advisers.

When picking multiple people to serve as mentors, think about the various roles they may be able to play. Generally, mentors serve three primary roles: providing career support (giving you exposure and visibility in the field, sponsoring you, coaching, providing challenging assignments), psychosocial support (counseling, friendship, acceptance and emotional support) and role modeling. While it is possible for one mentor to serve all of those roles, you might want to have several mentors, each playing a different role. You might pick at least one person who is similar to you in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, language, nationality or other demographics. Picking at least one mentor with a similar life experience can help you receive the psychosocial support and confidence that you need to be successful because he or she might be able to better understand some of the unique issues you face.

Make sure the mentors you pick value learning and development in the field. They should also have good communication skills and be able to provide you with guidance and constructive feedback. You want them to be honest with you, sharing their thoughts about your strengths and ways you can improve.

Finally, remember that people do not mentor just to be nice. Mentoring can take considerable time and effort. Though they may enjoy the intrinsic rewards of mentoring and be willing to help you out, they will be more inclined to continue the relationship if they are also gaining something from it. What could they gain? Appreciation, loyalty and the knowledge that you are actually using their advice. Or they may be pleased that you are willing to mentor others with less experience than yourself. Ask them what you can do to help them out. What is really important is showing initiative to “give back” to the mentor rather than simply looking to “take” from the relationship. Moving up in organizations is increasingly challenging in today’s companies. Having the right mentors can ease your transition.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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