Seek a Mentor

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Posted by Lindsey Pollack on May 5, 2011
Seek a Mentor
How can you turn a hero into a real career advisor? Cultivate a mentor.

A mentor is a professional advisor who agrees to provide expertise to “mentees” or “protégés” in order to help them build and succeed in their career, develop their skill set and experience, and build their networks. Mentors are an asset to any career, and most successful people over the course of history, in every field, cite one or several mentors as important factors in their achievements. Socrates mentored Plato. Haydn mentored Beethoven. Johnny Carson mentored Jay Leno. Whitney Houston mentored Brandy.

But don’t worry that mentoring is only for highly accomplished people who want to be superstars. According to Peer Resources, a nonprofit, Canadian educational corporation, “It is a myth that mentoring is a rare experience and only occurs for a few great people. Informal mentoring is probably the most frequent method of transmitting knowledge and wisdom in society; virtually everyone has experienced it.” By creating a more formalized mentor/protégé relationship, you’ll have a more regular forum for increasing your knowledge and wisdom.

In some ways, a mentoring relationship is like a long-term informational interview. It’s also a kind of friendship. This means that you and your mentor have to have a natural affinity towards each other and genuinely enjoy talking and watching each other’s success. So, how do you find this person? First and foremost, you have to be proactive; a mentor usually won’t come seeking you. As Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon has said, “Some people just wait for someone to take them under their wings, but they should just find someone's wings to grab onto.” Gaining a mentor is up to you.

Here are some tips for finding and making the most of a mentor, based on what’s worked for me and many of the successful professionals I know:

•    Seek a mentor in your existing network. If you’re new to this concept, seek mentoring from someone you know already. You might approach a former boss, professor, friend of the family, or local community leader whose career you admire. Professional associations, even if you’ve only attended one meeting, are a great place to find a mentor—many organizations will even set you up with a mentor as part of their services. Alumni of your college or university are a great place to look as well. Some schools have formal programs and others encourage students to find mentors in their alumni databases—check with your career services office for the proper protocol. And, as you saw in the previous tip, sometimes a mentoring relationship can be developed with someone you greatly admire, simply by contacting that person.

•    Start small. “Never ask, ‘Will you be my mentor?’” advise Eric Henderson and Heike Currie of Management Leadership for Tomorrow (www.ML4T.org), a nonprofit organization that runs programs to increase the presence of minorities in fast track entry-level jobs and major graduate business schools. “This unfocused request puts the person you ask in an awkward position. Although he or she is not likely to give you a flat, ‘No,’ it is very likely that you will have closed off a potentially meaningful conversation by positioning yourself as someone who simply wants a favor. Instead, ask an experienced person a focused and informed question about something you need to learn about your career. This will begin a dialogue that can grow into a mentoring relationship.” Mentoring can start with a simple chat over coffee, where you discuss just one issue or ask for general advice. You don’t have to set up weekly or monthly meetings right from the start; ease into your relationship.

•    Be specific about the kind of help you need. When someone agrees to be your mentor, tell that person exactly where you need help—determining what career path to pursue after college, learning how to be a professional, becoming a more confident negotiator, whatever. The more specific you are about your needs, the more specific a mentor can be with his or her advice.

•    “Meet” any way you can. In today’s super-busy world, it may be hard to have regular, face-to-face meetings with a mentor. Or, you may want to develop a mentoring relationship with someone who lives far away. This is absolutely fine. You can have a productive mentoring relationship over the phone or with email interactions. With ever-changing technology, you can even talk for free through your computer with a program like Skype.

•    Ask your mentor to make you accountable. It’s a great idea to find a mentor who is willing to follow up with you about your goals. When my mentors give me ideas or networking connections, we set a deadline for me to report back on my results. This also means that you should always be prepared when you meet with your mentor: have specific questions or situations ready to discuss—it’s totally appropriate to bring a list of items you’d like to discuss.


About the author: Lindsey Pollak is a bestselling author, speaker, and blogger specializing in career advice for college students and young professionals. She is the author of Getting from College to Career: 90 Things to Do Before You Join the Real World and writes the top-rated Lindsey Pollak Career Blog. Lindsey is also the career contributor for ABC News on Campus, has written for Marie Claire magazine and Metro New York newspaper, and frequently speaks at universities and corporations across the country. She is a graduate of Yale University.

This article was excerpted from
College to Career: 90 Things to Do Before You Join the Real World. To learn more, visit www.LindseyPollak.com

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