Increasingly now in the Information Age, when we want answers we can find them everywhere. Online we find expert videos, blogs, articles and white papers, and offline there are books, newsletters and magazines. We can connect with colleagues in the office and peers all around the globe. There is a never ending stream of advice, opinions and expertise at our fingertips, at the click of a mouse.
But who can we go to for wisdom we can trust? Where can we turn for experienced advice to help us achieve stronger performance? In business, the answer is increasingly, mentors.
"Mentoring lets employees soak up character, judgment and approach," writes Micki Holliday, in the book Coaching, Mentoring & Managing. "It is the opportunity for them to apprise situations and cultivate their own ways."
Interestingly, the concept of mentoring has been around since the days of ancient Greece. Mentor was the name of Odysseus' faithful friend who served as teacher and overseer for his son, Telemachus, when Odysseus left to fight in the Trojan War.
To this day, mentors continue to serve as guides and teachers, providing a good, reliable sounding board, opportunity for a second opinion, and support. We learn from their experience, their mistakes and their successes. And we often gain access to their (usually extensive) network of decision-makers.
Working with mentors is generally not only good for individuals but good for the company, as well. "Now more than ever, and in most industries, human assets are of greater importance than physical and financial assets," write the editors of the Harvard Business Essentials book Coaching and Mentoring. They make the case that neither physical nor financial assets differentiates companies nor confers a long-term competitive advantage, whereas human assets are the source of innovation and value creation. "Thus, organizations have a powerful economic incentive to develop their human assets."
Finding your Mentor
Though mentors do provide a valuable source of feedback, the mentor-mentee relationship almost always is best if it's free from evaluation and the subtle hierarchical pressure that come from working with a mentor within your home department or workgroup. Within companies, this is done by working with a mentor from a different area of the business, and one without a vested interest in the outcomes of decisions made by the mentee. And while it may work best to look within your own business, mentors don't have to come from within a company, nor do you need to wait for an established corporate mentor program to begin benefiting from a mentor relationship. Below is a list of places to get your starting in finding your own mentor:
- Professional associations: If it's important to you to have a mentor within your industry, look to people you meet at professional association meetings.
- Your network: Consider former bosses or professors, relatives, networking group contacts, friends, community groups, etc.
- Service organisations: Some groups, such as Rotary Club International, offer business mentoring programs. Look around in your city; ask at your local Chamber of Commerce.
- Others you admire or respect: Make a list of possible candidates before you begin your search. Even if you don't know them, you may know someone who does and would broker an introduction.
Don't forget also to spread the word. Let people know you are looking for a mentor and a brief outline of what you are seeking. Ask your contacts to keep you in mind if they know someone who might be available and suitable as a mentor.
Managing the Mentoring Relationship
It's important to be clear on your mentoring goals before proposing a mentor relationship with the person you've chosen. Mentors are usually interested in giving back to their community and/or they want to mentor in order to develop skills as a teacher, manager, strategist or consultant. But be considerate about your mentor's time, they are making a valuable contribution to your development. Mentoring relationships are usually free of charge so remember the adage that you get what you give. Buy your mentor some tea or pick up the lunch tab. Send her information she might consider useful for a pet project or offer help or services. Say thank you. Here are some other tips for working with a mentor:
- Come prepared to your meeting. Take notes, develop action steps and review both before your next meeting.
- Be clear about what you're doing and what you need. Keep to one or two specific, well-thought-out questions, and ask them clearly.
- Spend most of your time listening. You'll get the most out of your mentor if you don't engage in "Why I can't do that" conversations. You are not obligated to put any of your mentor's suggestions into action, so listen and take notes.
- Be personable. Don't spend all your time picking your mentor's brain. Make your time with your mentor a conversation rather than a grilling.
- Be real. You won't learn a fraction of what you could if you're trying to impress or skimming over problems. Don't get defensive if you are given feedback.
- Think for yourself. Mentors are not there to do your job or to figure everything out for you. Mentors should serve the role of guide. You must accept responsibility for your own decisions and actions.
Above all, if a mentoring program is to be successful, all parties must agree to maintain the strictest of confidentiality. You will discuss items that are commercial-in-confidence and your mentor will share ideas and experiences that will also be confidential. The mentor-mentee relationship is crucial. It is based upon encouragement, constructive comments, openness, mutual trust, respect and a willingness to learn and share.
For more resources on professional development, visit www.shapingchange.com.au/resources/ to pick up a complimentary copy of Ros' report "Thriving in Change" and the free 6-part audio series "Thriving in the Midst of Change".
This article was first published by Leaders in Heels.