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Why Mentoring is So Important

Imagine two hikers scaling a steep incline. As one climbs the vertical face, the other provides stability, maybe even an extra little push up the mountain. Then when it’s time for the other hiker to climb, the first provides support and guidance from above.

Mentoring is a lot like this. Traditionally, we think of mentors helping newer colleagues “up” but it’s a two-way street. Mentors can learn a lot from their mentees, too. That’s why a good mentoring relationship is built on mutual trust and respect, in a safe environment that supports sharing of information and thoughts.

Why Mentoring is so Important

Many of us were fortunate to have someone in our youth – a teacher, counselor, relative or coach – who gave us that first experience of mentoring. Maybe they gave you important information, perspective or feedback that enabled you to take the next step with more confidence.

Even in the workplace, most mentoring still happens in the same kind of informal way. Mentors and mentees often come together because they initially share interests and similarities. It’s natural. A manager may take a new colleague “under their wing,” and then share important tips on how to navigate the corporate culture. Or a new salesperson is invited to play a round of golf with more experienced colleagues. They get to know each other better, and on the long walk around the course, share better ways to approach clients.

This information is powerful. It can mean the difference between one person getting promoted and the other – of comparable skill and intelligence – getting stuck in a job or even leaving the organization. That’s why mentoring is so important. Too important to be left to chance. So, whether you are looking to mentor or to be a mentee, here are some tips to hike this path with the right person.

What Is a Mentor?

A lot of different relationships fall into the mentoring bucket. For instance, it could be a job coach, someone who helps a new colleague onboard and shows them the ropes. Or it could be a more senior, experienced person who acts as a sounding board on career development issues for a younger person. Or it could be someone who shares the “this is how things are done around here” information that can help you to avoid cultural “potholes” and present yourself in the best light. A mentor can help a junior person get noticed, maybe even promoted. A mentor can give feedback and help the mentee close skill gaps.

Being a Mentor

The foundation of a good mentoring relationship is connection. This means keeping all communication confidential. It means being responsive and accessible and being completely present when the mentor and mentee meet. It means creating a safe environment for the mentee to confide, ask questions and try out new skills. Ultimately, it means that each person cares about the other as an individual, beyond job titles and organizational roles, and is invested in each other’s success.

As a mentor, the first step is to build rapport and trust. One way of accomplishing this is to share your own experiences and struggles, maybe from earlier in your career or position. Being authentic and even a little vulnerable makes it easier for the mentee to ask difficult questions and confide. The goal is to support and facilitate the mentee’s learning and growth. Avoid telling them what to do. That’s a one-way street, not a relationship.

Everyone learns differently, too. People work and respond to different advice. For example, maybe you don’t like a lot of managing and hands-on supervision. But other people may need more structure or repetition to nail the concept. Patience is key, as is paying close attention to what the mentee needs.

It’s fine to leave off every conversation with, “Let me know if you need anything. I’m happy to help.” But let’s say you’re working with a mentee who is not assertive and hesitates to reach out. Add some structure, like a timeframe. “How about if we touch base on Tuesday and you can go over your week with me and see what questions come up?”

Finding a Mentor

Are you looking for a mentor, someone who can give you guidance and perspective in your career? Finding a mentor is relatively easy. You just need to know where to look and have the confidence to approach the person. Most people feel flattered when asked to be a mentor, and genuinely enjoy sharing their experiences and helping someone navigate their situation. And you probably have a much bigger network than you realize. Consider these ways to identify a mentor.

Family and friends. A simple place to begin is with people you already know. Scan your network for people who have accomplished things that you want to accomplish, whether it be personal, or job related. When you reach out, say “I’m really interested in _. Is this something we could talk about sometime?”

Colleagues. At work, follow a similar process. Identify colleagues who are where you’d like to be whether it’s professional or personal. Maybe it’s someone who seems to have a good work / life balance. Or someone whose professional skills you admire or who sits on a committee with you and is a natural leader.

Professional organizations. Sometimes you can’t find the right person in your workplace, or maybe you don’t feel comfortable doing so. Look for professional organizations in your field. Attend events, listen, talk to others and think about who you might approach, even for a casual conversation. Identify the knowledge experts in your field. Also, check out the membership benefits. Several professional associations include mentor programs as part of their offerings.

Academic. Another good place to find mentors is back at your alma mater. Contact professors in your subject area, or the career development office, and ask if they could recommend people you could reach out to. Similarly, look at your online alumni directory and search for alum that may fit the bill.

Informational interviews. Informational interviews can be a step towards a mentoring relationship. Identify people in your network (including social media sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and even, Instagram) and ask if you can chat. It’s rare to find a mentor by just a cold contact. But after an informational interview you could ask if you can follow up now and then with questions.

With all these avenues to finding a mentor, remember you can always ask for referrals. The person you first contact may not be the right mentor; but they could refer you to someone who will be.

Whether you are a mentor or a mentee, mentoring is an important part of your professional and personal development. It can happen informally but sometimes it doesn’t, resulting in people missing key information that can help them. Whether you are the one first scaling the mountain, or the one helping your fellow hiker up, sharing your experiences and knowledge in a mentoring relationship benefits both parties, and accelerates professional and personal growth.

Photo credit: Jaime Reimer from Pexels