Helping Hands

Let Mentors Give Your Career an Assist

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By Lily Whiteman
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 7, 2006; 10:00 AM

Once, early in her career as an alcoholism counselor, Janet Ruck fainted at the lectern while giving a talk about alcoholism to medical experts. She avoided public speaking for decades hence.

But her desire to share her knowledge with an audience eventually compelled her to join Toastmasters International, a nonprofit organization that helps professionals improve their communication skills.

Toastmasters did more than keep Ruck off the floor. By introducing her to other professionals who had successfully escaped their comfort zones, and by providing her with group and one-on-one mentoring, Toastmasters heloped her pursue a new profession as a Washington-area federal career coach.

Ruck's evolution illustrates how professionally valuable personal development can be. Mentors are trusted, experienced advisors who share technical knowledge, administrative expertise and people skills with others.

How to Find Them

Mentoring can take many forms, from casual conversations to formal relationships with regularly scheduled meetings. But no matter what form the advice takes, experts say, you'll know it when you see it: It is practical, personalized and situational help intended to help the mentee overcome hurdles and achieve goals.

How can you find mentors? There are a number of ways:

  • Use people you know. New York elementary school teacher Laura Conway often spends free periods sitting in on the classes of colleagues she admires to pick up pointers on how to explain material and interact with students. Conway also invites other teachers to visit her classes and give feedback. "I don't want to stagnate in this job," she says. "I want to keep improving."
  • Ask around. Several years ago Alan Inouye, then a student in California, prepared for a job-hunting trip to Washington by asking friends, relatives, colleagues and neighbors to share connections, eventually winning a referral to a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) staffer.
  • "My college roommate had a roommate whose girlfriend knew someone who knew someone," Inouye recalls. His connection's counsel helped him land an NAS position

  • Keep school ties. Your alumni connections can be valuable no matter when you graduated. Steven Blum remembered this when he contacted a Wesleyan University counselor five years after graduation. "I hated being a lawyer but I didn't know what else to do," he says.
  • The counselor recommended a graduate program to Blum led him to his current calling: providing financial advice at his Philadelphia firm Steven G. Blum and Associates and teaching at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.


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    © 2006 The Washington Post Company

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