Earlier in my career, I asked myself, “What am I doing that is getting in the way of me reaching my goal as a leader?” I posed that question to a colleague I respected, who responded, “Have you ever asked anyone for help?” That simple question made a huge impact on me.
Even if you’ve never been involved in a formal mentoring program, you’ve had mentors along the way. A teacher, a colleague, a boss, a friend with a particular experience or skill set: All of these people can act as mentors, guiding you along your journey to reach your goal.
When you set out to achieve career success, finding a mentor is critical to your personal development. However, it can seem like a daunting task. Where do you start? What do you ask? Who qualifies for such a role?
Here’s the secret: The whole process of mentoring is actually much easier than you think.
The Importance of Mentoring — on Both Sides
Mentoring impacted me, and not only from a career standpoint. Mentoring has led to different behavior in my personal life. The more you are mentored, the more you realize there is equal value in serving as a mentor yourself.
Mentoring — both for the mentor and for the one who is mentored — engages us on a human level. It addresses two separate but often intertwined human urges: the drive to get better and the desire to help others.
As we look up to others for guidance, we should also be looking below and sideways to provide guidance ourselves. It is not only good for the soul to do this, but there is also a practical side: The people you mentor will eventually advance and become good industry contacts.
8 Ways to Make the Most of Mentoring
Here are some things I have learned about mentoring — some I learned while being mentored, and some I learned as a mentor:
1. Mentoring Can Be Both Formal and Informal
There are many fine, formal mentoring programs organized by companies and professional societies, but there are also informal opportunities that can be of equal and perhaps even greater value.
Maybe there is someone who has a skill or capability you admire. Consider asking them if they have time for a meeting over coffee. Then, ask them about their career path — what worked for them, what didn’t, and whether they have recommendations they would make to someone who is developing in their own career.
I’m not sure if my informal mentors knew they were mentors to me, but I appreciated their time and wisdom, and I learned a lot by connecting informally, listening to their stories, and soliciting their advice.
2. Be Clear on Your Mentoring Goals
Know what you’d like to learn from a mentor, whether it’s how to influence others, how to present new ideas or concepts, or something else entirely. Share your goals with your mentor so they know how to help you reach them. In most formal mentoring relationships, the goals you want to achieve should be clear so progress can be measured along the way.
3. Learn From Negative Examples
You can learn from anyone — even people you didn’t really like working for or alongside. In fact, these negative examples can teach you a lot about the professional and personal pitfalls to avoid in life. Seeing and experiencing things I didn’t like made me think about the behaviors I didn’t want to exhibit as a leader.
4. Look for Opportunities to Be a Mentor Yourself
Mentoring doesn’t always come by looking up in an organization. Don’t look up all the time! Look down and sideways, too.
Opportunities to mentor others can come from being a resource to new employees joining the organization. We have all been in that situation, and most of us would have appreciated having a buddy to help us navigate a new company or role. Your helpfulness will be returned many times over.
5. Confidentially Is Key
Confidentiality is an essential component of mentoring, and that may mean that you will need to seek a mentor outside of your immediate chain of command. The mentor/mentee relationship should be a safe space, a circle of trust.
There is another benefit to having a mentor outside your reporting chain, too: They may be able to share what they know about you with other people in the organization. It’s great to have advocates across the organization who can speak highly of you and your accomplishments.
6. Trust Your Advocates
As indicated above, a mentor can talk on your behalf. As one mentor put it to me, it’s a matter of “building your fan club.” Bosses appreciate hearing positive feedback about you from others.
7. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Someone to Be Your Mentor
Even if it’s someone at a senior level. Senior-level people are easier to reach for help than you might think. You may not find them available at your company, but they can be found informally in your social circles and community life.
Every senior-level person with whom I have spoken has told me getting to where they are was never easy. Most have had their setbacks along the way, and they can share with you how they bounced back in the face of adversity.
8. Be Open to Listening
Again, mentors can be found anywhere. Once you have found one, you have to listen to what they have to say.
I could go on and on, but let me stop myself and end on this final note: A mentor can provide a fresh perspective; they can point out new things you hadn’t considered before. Being a mentor or a mentee puts you in a position to teach and communicate, which makes you a better professional.
So go ahead. Get mentored, and become one yourself. It will be a game-changer in your life.
Cheryl Middleton Jones is chief people officer for CO-OP Financial Services.