The Importance of a Mentor to your Career

When questioned about their career trajectories, you’ll find that most successful people credit a mentor or mentors for helping them along their way. No one learns in a vacuum, and it’s the men and women who are able to sponge up the wisdom of others and apply it in their own personal and professional lives who really set themselves apart.

What is a Mentor?

A mentor is an individual, usually older and with more experience, who is willing to help and guide another’s development. There is no expectation that the mentor will receive any payment or return for their time. So, essentially mentoring is a responsibility they volunteer for.  However, often mentoring relationships become a two way street when they work really well.

There are many famous mentoring relationships (see below for a few). However, a mentor doesn’t have to be someone universally renowned for expertise in a particular field. You could find a mentor among friends, relatives, coworkers, teachers or supervisors.

Why is a Mentor Important?

One of my favourite sayings from Seth Godin (author, entrepreneur and marketer) is “You are more powerful than you think”. Yet it is sometimes hard to muster this belief in yourself. Sometimes you need a person to help you understand that you are the master of your own professional destiny. A mentor can help you to see your own potential. They can provide you with a way to explore your own ideas, fears and important questions on your professional development journey. A mentor can provide you with the inspirational spark to get you started on a particular path and help you talk things through when you feel stuck. Perhaps most importantly, a trusted mentor can ask you the tough questions that you need to face when you don’t seem to be making the progress that you had hoped for. In the words of Dan Gheesling,

Experience is an invaluable tool. Experience can’t be purchased, it can only be earned, or shared. A great mentor will share their experience with you to help you achieve your goal in the best possible way they know how.

What Makes a Good Mentor?

Truly great mentors are those who are constantly learning themselves. A mentor with an open mind and a “learning attitude” is capable of discussing situations that they have not necessarily encountered themselves in a way that brings clarity for you both. Of course, a mentor must have a desire to develop and help others. Without that, they are simply someone who likes to hear the sound of their own voice. A valuable mentor is someone who has not only talked the talk, but who has also walked the walk. This means they have experienced success and failure. Someone who is prepared to share stories about their failures as well as their triumphs is worth their weight in gold!

Of course, a mentor should also have the time to give you. However, this doesn’t mean that conversations have to be lengthy, face to face, or that you need to dedicate yourself to just one mentor. You may find that you get amazing advice about one aspect of your career from one person, and better advice about another area from someone else. Social media, e-mail and Skype make connecting easy and inexpensive, so be creative in the way you connect.

What Type of Mentor should you look for?

Having outlined the universal qualities of a good mentor, give some thought to the type of experience they should have to provide you with the advice you seek. Here are some aspects to give consideration to:

  • Do they need to be from the same industry sector as you – are your current advice needs industry-focused, or more general in nature?
  • Are your ambitions related to working for a particular size of organization – who do you know with expertise in that type of environment? This can be especially (though, not exclusively) true for women who are early in their careers.
  • Do you want to be an entrepreneur and, in that case, do you need advice about a specific market, or general guidance on building a business, marketing, finance etc.?
  • What stage does your mentor need to be in their career? You may not always need advice from the most senior person. Think about the situation you would like to get help with, and then about the people you know who have likely been there themselves?
  • If you are working and need a fresh perspective about your role or your company, is it wiser to ask an outsider’s perspective, or the opinion of someone internally?

What makes a good Mentee (i.e. someone who can be mentored)?

Just as a mentor should have a learning attitude, you too must be committed to expanding your capabilities and focused on achieving professional results. Check your ego at the door when interacting with a mentor. You must be able to accept feedback, including constructive criticism. An openness to trying new ideas, asking for help and admitting when you are stuck will allow you to leverage mentoring relationships to their fullest extent.

Developing mentoring relationships also requires some thoughtful planning on your part. What are your immediate, mid-term and long term career goals? What questions do you have currently about your professional development and who could provide insights to help you answer these? Be prepared to do some preparation in advance of both looking for appropriate mentors and then interacting with them when you find them.

To get you started, think about the following questions:

  • Do I need additional education
  • What extra curricular activities might help me further my career goals?
  • What organizations look to hire the type of skill set I want to develop and the positions I am interested in?
  • How to I get management or leadership experience when I don’t currently have any direct reports?
  • Who should I be connecting with at my school while I am studying to help me find a job when I graduate?
  • What new areas of the field I am interested in do I not know about and how can I find out more about them?
  • I am afraid of presentations and public speaking – how should I manage this aspect of my development?
  • Should I travel after school and if so, where?

Where to find a Mentor

The best place to look for a mentor, is right in front of you. Look around your workplace or your industry. Who do you admire and respect? Who has always impressed you with their insight and perceptiveness? And finally, who do you feel drawn to?
Be prepared to talk about what the relationship might look like and how much time might be involved. There is a big difference between meeting someone for lunch on a quarterly basis versus a weekly phone call. Be clear what you want out of the mentoring process and structure your relationship accordingly. Don’t be intimidated or afraid to reach out to prospective mentors. The worst thing that can happen is the mentor may be too busy. But they may suggest someone else.

Advice also to consider from famous Shark Tank member, Robert Herjavec is to think about everyone you encounter professionally as a source of mentorship and advice:

Stop the ‘will you be my mentor?’ emails and start being present to embrace the learning opportunities all around you. Ask your colleagues and executive team members for their points of view. Seek advice from your direct leader or leader once removed. Start having conversations and soaking in the mentorship moments.

A Word to the Wise

A great mentor-mentee relationship is worth nurturing and preserving. There are a few things to keep in mind to preserve the golden opportunity you have been granted by your mentor.

Always be mindful that the person you are receiving advice from is busy. Be respectful of their time, don’t be late for meetings or calls and respond in a timely way to their correspondence with you. Always be prepared for your interactions, and execute on their advice to the best of your abilities.

NEVER forget to show your appreciation. Thank you cards never go out of fashion. Think about sending business articles that you think they might be interested in.

Don’t go into a mentoring relationship with someone assuming that it is going to lead to a job offer. This may be a natural outcome somewhere in the future, but it is not a given.

10 Famous Mentoring Relationships

(Mentor is on the left)

Lil Wayne to Drake
Nora Ephron to Lena Dunham
Maya Angelou to Oprah Winfrey
Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerburg
His Uncle Jim to Richard Branson
Larry Summers to Sheryl Sandberg
Robert Friedland to Steve Jobs
Madonna to Gwyneth Paltrow
Warren Buffet to Bill Gates
His Grandma to Clint Eastwood
Gandhi to Martin Luther King

Do you have any great mentoring experiences to share? Let us know juliette@foodgrads.com or post a comment below.