How to Cultivate Great Mentor Relationships and Grow Your Career
If you are ready to grow your career, it is time to get others involved in your journey. Mentors can offer insights from their own experiences, help you think more strategically, and open doors. Some mentors stay with you throughout your career, some are with you at a particular job, and some for one project. Some mentors choose you and some mentors you choose for yourself. Here are the steps you need to ensure a positive mentoring relationship.
What are you looking for from a mentor?
What does having a mentor mean to you? If you invite someone to be your mentor, be clear about what you want from this person. Determine if you would like advice to grow your career, to have a sounding board for challenging issues at work, to develop skills in a certain area — or all of the above.
Identifying a mentor
Consider people in your profession, your office or your community whom you admire and from whom you could learn. It is helpful if you have some connection to a prospective mentor, but do not rule out the opportunity just because they don’t know your name (yet!). Ask friends and respected colleagues for their insights. It's important to note that your mentor does not have to be just like you. I encourage you to seek out mentors who can offer new perspectives; this is where true learning happens.
Asking for the meeting
Now that you know what you are looking for and whom you hope will be your mentor, it’s time to reach out. Remember, you are investing in yourself, so be yourself boldly. No one else will invest in you unless you are willing to invest in yourself. I recommend a brief email referencing how you two know each other, something you admire about them, and what you hope to learn. Depending on proximity, invite the person to meet at their office, to have a phone call or to Skype.
Don’t feel like you have to go to coffee every time with your mentor. There are some days I have been invited to three coffee meetings — and I don’t even drink coffee. Bonus tip: have a walking meeting with your mentor. You will both appreciate the mental break from the office, get some exercise, and it may make it more comfortable to ask some of your questions (such as dealing with a difficult boss).
Cultivating an excellent mentoring relationship
Establish guidelines with your mentor
When you meet with your mentor for the first time, clarify the expectations each person has about the relationship. How often will you meet? Is she willing to answer of-the-moment questions? What is the best way to schedule with her?
Prepare for your mentoring sessions
Be a good steward of your mentor’s time (and yours) by preparing in advance for each conversation. Jo Miller, Founding Editor of Be Leaderly, offers four types of questions to ask your mentor: career stories, situational advice, self-awareness, and skill-building. I suggest keeping a running list of things to discuss, so you can refer back to them while you prepare.
Add value to your mentoring relationship
Mentoring is a partnership and mentors can get as much from the relationship as they give. Is there a skill you can teach, generational insights you can share or industry perspective you can bring? Oftentimes mentors find the most joy in just being a part of your professional development.
Keep in contact with mentors
Send notes when you get a new job to thank them for their role in your professional growth, even if it was many years ago. Tiffany Dufu, author of Drop the Ball, calls them her “village updates,” which is an expression I love. It is equally important to send notes congratulating your mentors on their own growth and successes. After all, mentors are people, too (albeit they can seem superhuman to us!)
We tend to think of mentors as people who have significantly more experience than we do. Peer mentors are people who are in a similar life stage or career stage (but not necessarily the same industry or role) and can offer guidance from their own experiences. Having someone who can relate to your current experiences presents immeasurable value. It can be more comfortable to practice critical conversations with a peer. They can remind you to advocate for yourself and challenge your thinking, all while understanding where you are coming from.
Mentors provide us with support, encouragement, feedback and ideas. They help us approach situations with new ways of thinking and renewed confidence. These experiences will contribute to your success throughout your career.
Who supported you along the way? Who encouraged you to develop that new skill, take on that challenge, aspire to more? Who believed in your ability to get here before you did?
Today is as good a day as any to reach out to thank your mentors and acknowledge the role they played in your personal and professional development. Then honor them by mentoring others.
Shanna Hocking is the Associate Vice President, Individual Giving at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She writes about leadership and fundraising as a working mom and has been featured by Ellevate Network and Huffington Post. Shanna is grateful to her many mentors who believed in her so that she learned to believe in herself.
Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.
Associate Vice President, Development
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
At 18, I knew I wanted to have a career in fundraising. I staffed an event for my alma mater where a donor honored his mentor with a gift to the university and I knew then I wanted to help create these opportunities to transform ideas, people and places through philanthropy. I have worked the majority of my career in higher education (public and private/Ivy League) and recently transitioned to academic medicine. I have experience in... Continue Reading
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