Mentors can help you navigate sticky workplace situations, overcome career obstacles, and do better on the job
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You can count on your mentor when the going gets tough.
We all get why we need them — mentors help us make more money, advance in our careers faster, and they are dependable allies to lean on at work. A 2012 survey found that entrepreneurs who received mentoring increasing their revenue by an average $47,000 a year. And the American Psychological Association says that the myriad benefits of having a mentor include career coaching, a wider professional network and increased satisfaction in the workplace.
Oprah defines a mentor as “someone who allows you to see the higher part of yourself when sometimes it becomes hidden to your own view,” as she said in a 2002 interview with an ABC affiliate station in Boston. The queen of talk credits her fourth grade teacher Mrs. Duncan as a mentor, since she would stay after school to read with her and gave her the courage to pursue her dreams.
Even Meryl Streep had a mentor. Oscar-winning actress Jane Fonda, 80, mentored fellow legend Streep, 68, back in the late ’70s. Fonda told Good Morning America in 2014 that when she and Streep worked together on the 1977 film “Julia,” Streep looked to her for guidance, asking questions like, “What do you do when you are nervous?” or “How do you overcome fear?'”
It’s important to remember that, as you ask someone to be your mentor, it’s not a proposal — there’s no need for a “Will you be my mentor?” moment. The best way to go, according to career coach Susan O’Sullivan, is to keep the request light and casual. Approach someone with your same values, work ethic and great qualities that you admire, and ask them to guide you and impart some of their tips.
Many business leaders say that mentorship has contributed to their rise. A 2013 coaching report co-conducted by the Stanford Graduate School of Business, found that four in five CEOs had received some type of mentorship throughout their career. And according to a 2011 LinkedIn study of roughly 1,000 female professionals, 82% of women at work said having a mentor was important to them — but as many as one in five said they’d never had one.
Everyone can benefit from a mentor, career coach Jane Scudder said. “Finding someone to act as a sounding board or to bounce new ideas off of — that’s never not helpful.” She did say that younger workers just starting out are among the most likely workers to benefit from mentorship, but mentors can be an asset for people at any phase of their careers.
So how do you ask someone you look up to at work to be your mentor, and how can you get the most out of the relationship? O’Sullivan and Scudder shared their advice.
1. Ask like this. “I do not recommend somebody simply say, ‘Hey, will you be my mentor?'” Scudder said, explaining that “it’s surprisingly uncomfortable” to put people on the spot that way. Instead, let it unfold organically by confiding in your potential mentor that you’d like his or her guidance on something, and setting up a series of meetings. There’s no need to slap on a formal “mentor” definition, at least not in the first few conversations.
“The word ‘mentor’ might scare people off,” O’Sullivan added. Her advice? Simply say: “As someone who’s junior on the team and just learning, could I drop by or go for coffee with you every now and again to ask you some questions and get your advice? It won’t be a big time drain — I just need a sounding board to bounce thoughts off of from time to time.”
2. Find the right person for your needs. “It’s not about [their] title,” said O’Sullivan; in other words, don’t just go by what level of seniority they hold at the company. Instead, try to identify people with the skills you want to have, like someone who leads meetings well or navigates tough situations on the job gracefully. These are the kinds of people who could have good things to teach you.
Be honest with them about what you admire. “I really like how you run the group meetings,” O’Sullivan suggested as one potential opener. “Can you share some tips with me on how to do that, too?”
3. Take on more than one mentor. “I believe that the strongest professionals and the most well-rounded humans have multiple mentors,” Scudder said. “The message is not to go out and get eight different mentors,” she added, but it’s worth having a mentor within your organization who is familiar with your job and company politics, as well as someone outside who can give you a broader picture.
4. Set regular meetings. Most mentorship relationships involve monthly get-togethers, the career coaches agreed. As the mentee, take the initiative to set the meetings up, perhaps at your company cafeteria or somewhere outside of the office. Offer to buy your mentor a cup of coffee or a snack; after a few meetings, perhaps bring your mentor a handwritten note to say thank you, O’Sullivan suggested.
Keep the meetings on the brief side, too, she added, and don’t talk business forever — at a coffee meeting, spend about 15 minutes to half an hour chatting about work; then transition to broader topics about life or other things to keep your mentor from feeling too guarded or on the spot. “I wouldn’t make it so structured,” she noted. Come with a few pre-planned topics, but also be ready to listen. “At the end of every meeting you should schedule the next appointment,” she said.
5. What if you outgrow your mentor? “You don’t need to officially terminate a mentorship; there’s no benefit to it,” said Scudder, noting this could cause hurt feelings.
“You don’t have to tell your mentor, ‘Okay, we’re done,'” she advised. “You just let the conversation begin to slow; and in six or 12 or 18 months, or five years, when one of you wants to get back in touch, it’s not weird.”
O’Sullivan agreed, and suggested to simply say, “You’ve taken me so far and I’ve gotten so much out of this; I’m ready to go out on my own.”
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