An interesting fact seemingly shared by almost all accomplished people is that they had a mentor. Bill Clinton was a protégé of William Fulbright. Sigmund Freud was mentored by Joseph Breuer. Carl Jung by Sigmund Freud. Bill Gates by Warren Buffet. Oprah Winfrey by Maya Angelou. Henry David Thoreau by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hilary Clinton by Rev. Donald James. Helen Keller by Anne Sullivan. Aristotle by Plato. Plato by Socrates… The list goes on.
What exactly is a mentor, anyway? A mentor can encompass a wide variety of roles. They can be someone who models appropriate behavior, offers encouragement, opens the door to opportunity, keeps you accountable, and inspires vision. Having someone who is willing to share their experience with you can make a big difference, however cliché that may sound.
Surprisingly, despite many obvious benefits, mentorship has been cited as one of the least-utilized tools for advancing one’s career. A career survey indicated that only about thirty percent of respondents reported having a mentor, and roughly twenty percent said that their company had a mentoring program in place. In addition, as an advancement strategy mentoring ranked lowest, far behind the most popular choices of obtaining additional education, seeking more responsibility at work, asking for promotion, and networking. With that in mind, the goal for this article is to explain how to form and sustain a meaningful relationship with your potential mentor(s).
Identifying and Approaching a Potential Mentor
Start by defining your career goals and objectives for your ideal mentor relationship. Assess the mentoring philosophy that works for you, making a list of things you want to learn or obtain, assessing your strengths and weaknesses, and determining your learning styles.
Next, create a list of people whom you would like to have as your mentors. It can be anyone from your family, work, and/or school. Once you have identified your potential mentors, do your homework, thoroughly researching their background using resources like their personal websites and LinkedIn profiles. Of course, you have to decide how you will connect with them. Look for opportunities to meet them through networking events, student clubs, and organizations. If you feel uncomfortable reaching out in this way, you may also consider emailing or calling them, or asking someone else to provide an introduction.
In your first meeting, you will want to approach the potential mentor(s) as if you are conducting an informational interview. Demonstrate what you already know about them by asking insightful questions based on your background research. Make the best possible first impression by being personable, polite, and enthusiastic. Take this opportunity to determine if they would be the right kind of person to be your mentor. Do they seem interested in your development? How knowledgeable or experienced are they in their respective fields? Are they empathetic? Good listener? Well-connected? If so, take the risk and ask them if they could be your mentor. Most people will be flattered, but in case they say “No,” just move on without taking it personally. After all, there may be all sorts of reasons for them to decline your request that have nothing to do with you! Don’t let the fear of rejection stop you; take the risk, because it can be worth it!
Sustaining Your Mentoring Relationship
Congrats, you got yourself a mentor! Now it’s just a matter of sitting back and letting your mentor fill you with their wisdom, right? Not so easy. If you are not careful, your mentoring relationship can turn into an unpleasant experience, a waste of time for both parties, a parade of pointless meetings where you and your mentor simply go through the motions, meeting for the meeting’s sake, exchanging nothing of value. Having said that, here are some ways in which to ensure your mentoring relationship starts out on the right foot and remains meaningful for everyone involved:
Set clear expectations and boundaries. Decide on the means and frequency of communication, making sure to meet regularly, at least once a month. Checking in often and keeping lines of communication open is essential for any quality relationship.
Take responsibility for the relationship. Show initiative, drive and commitment to ensure that the relationship stays productive and meaningful for both you and your mentor.
Find ways to give something back, however small, to your mentor on a continual basis. You may do this by sharing interesting stories, showing frequent expressions of sincere gratitude and admiration, offering to help out with your mentor’s projects, making the mentor feel an increased power and personal satisfaction.
Communicate SMART goals often. Goal-directed mentoring has been shown to be the most satisfying and rewarding type of mentorship for both mentors and mentees. Frequently revisit the goals and expectations set in the beginning of the relationship.
Always follow through on your mentor’s suggestions and advice. This does not mean you need to do everything that your mentor says, but at least show him/her that you have given some serious thoughts to what your mentor said. Too often, protégés forget to follow through on what mentors say, and some mentors may use this as a criterion on which to terminate certain mentoring relationships.
Perfect mentors do not exist. Each mentor has different perspectives and insights to offer you, so be willing to form multiple mentoring relationships throughout your career. Also expect to become a mentor yourself to others at some point in your life. Oprah Winfrey said it best when she remarked:
“I think mentors are important and I don’t think anybody makes it in the world without some form of mentorship. Nobody makes it alone. Nobody has made it alone. And we are all mentors to people even when we don’t know it.”
In light of this, how about becoming a mentor through SFU International for the 2012-2013 year? The online application form will remain open between around February and March of 2012. My own mentoring experience as part of this program for several years has been highly rewarding. Not only did I make a positive impact on the lives of my mentees, but I have also gained myriad benefits, not the least of which is increase in intercultural knowledge and ability to empathize with others; an expanded network; and a real sense of personal satisfaction.