As defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a mentor is a trusted counselor or guide. But perhaps missing from this definition is the value attached to it—the esteem of connecting with a seasoned professional for his or her guidance, encouragement and effective strategies.
The rule of landing a mentor and cultivating a successful relationship aren’t always clear-cut. After all, you have to keep in mind the different personalities and roles involved.
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Securing a valuable mentor is one challenge and making the most out of that connection is quite another. Experts say it’s critical to outline what you’re hoping to gain from a mentor, and then put forth the effort to make the most out of the relationship once it’s intact.
Here are some steps you can take toward selecting the right mentor to help inspire and motivate you to achieve career success.
Why do you need a mentor?
Ask yourself why you want a mentor in the first place. Is it to guide your overall career? Help you get a promotion? Help you take a tactful leap from a ho-hum day job to a lucrative freelance career?
Knowing the answer to this question is a critical step to a fruitful mentoring relationship, says Heather Cianchetti, managing director of The Execu|Search Group’s creative and digital division.
“[Mentors] can help you think through challenges, deal with sticky career situations, develop strategies and evaluate opportunities,” says Megan Dalla-Camina, a workplace psychology expert.
She also advises choosing different mentors for different purposes. For instance, if you’re in broadcasting you could reach out to a producer whose career path you aspire to emulate, and then find a prominent blogger in your circle who could help you strengthen your visibility via social media.
After defining the scope of what you’re seeking, says Cianchetti, take your mentor’s personality and chemistry into account. If someone intimidates you or doesn’t seem invested in you, it will be challenging or even stressful to approach them.
“Your meetings should feel like a conversation, not a lecture,” she advises. “If you don’t feel comfortable expressing yourself, asking questions and communicating your concerns, you’re not going to gain much from the relationship.”
Where to find a mentor.
Seeking someone who is a leader in your field has obvious advantages. Whether your potential mentor has knowledge about your particular industry or about dealing with company politics, the more seasoned professionals can help you advance your career with their guidance and tutelage, says Cianchetti.
When you aim high in your search for mentors, you’re able to gain valuable insight and learn from any mistakes they’ve made on their road to success.
Sunil Sani, co-founder of CareerGlider.com, a resource for education and career information, didn’t have to look very far to land his own mentor—his father. “He is entrepreneurial in nature and loves starting new businesses,” Sani says.
A mentoring relationship can also be found right next door. Literally. Sani suggests reaching out to a neighbor if the networking opportunity makes sense.
How to connect with a mentor.
Once you’ve identified the mentor or mentors to approach, there are a few ways to handle it. Dalla-Camina explains that you can seek an introduction from a mutual connection or send an email directly to the person and ask for 30 minutes of his or her time.
“Be specific in your request,” she points out. “Open-ended requests can scare people off.” Tell your potential mentor what you admire about him and three things you want to ask during the 30-minute meeting.
Depending on your situation, the relationship and introduction itself may be less formal and that’s okay. If, as Sani suggested above, you’ve found your mentor next door and, let’s say, she is a successful marketing consultant, ask if you can tag along with this person to one of her events.
“You’ll be doing two things: helping others and learning from a master,” says Sani. “While [at the event], get introduced to as many people as you can and be sure to follow up by adding your new contacts on LinkedIn and Google+.”
If the initial connection goes well, find out if your contact is willing to meet on a monthly or quarterly basis. “The mentee needs to drive the relationship,” says Dalla-Camina; however, “be respectful of the mentor’s time and always express deep gratitude.”
Maintaining the connection.
Following up periodically is paramount to the success of the mentor-mentee relationship. While the mentor needs to set aside time in his or her calendar to invest in you, you need to be just as invested, if not more.
If you’re not willing to take the initiative and set up meetings and follow through, you’re simply not going to get much out of the exchange.
Once goals are attained and you’ve landed that promotion, you may think “What now?” Says Cianchetti: “I don’t think the relationship necessarily needs to end because the overall goal has been achieved. I think it’s important for the mentor and mentee to catch up every couple of months.”
Maintaining consistent communication is key to ensuring the professional relationship you built stays strong for months or years to come.
You never know when you might seek your mentor’s guidance once again. As Dalla-Camina puts it: “A good mentor can push you to the heights you are capable of when your self-limiting beliefs [are] holding you back.”