On the first day of your first real postcollege job, you're in your first staff meeting, and you have absolutely no idea how to behave. You feel like everyone is waiting for you to screw up. Later, you have no one to eat lunch with. And that afternoon, you find yourself perplexed by the strange interpersonal interactions you've seen in your new workplace or by the unusual way important decisions are made.
Time to consult a how-to-succeed-in-your-first-job book? Maybe. But wouldn't it be easier and more effective if you could talk to someone about your many questions without feeling stupid? Enter the on-the-job mentor.
A mentor "is more than a coach," says Rene Petrin, president of Management Mentors, a consulting firm in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, that specializes in developing and implementing structured workplace mentoring programs. "She/he is someone who not only has expertise but hopefully can also listen effectively, challenge you to be all you can be, and provide you with a supportive and trusting environment where you can share the issues you're confronting both personally and professionally."
Guidance from a Trusted Colleague
"Coming straight out of college, you have no idea what you're doing," says 22-year-old Megan Perkins, a 2004 graduate of Brigham Young University-Idaho who now works as an associate at Coltrin & Associates, a New York City-based public relations firm. "It doesn't matter how prepared you think you are -- and I thought I was prepared. Entering the real-world workplace is a bit of a shock."
That's why Perkins made a conscious decision to seek out a workplace mentor immediately after she began working at Coltrin & Associates. She soon found one in seasoned colleague Ann Norman.
"I don't think I ever formally asked Ann to be my mentor," Perkins says. "I just started asking her a lot of questions: how did she do things, why would she do it like that, would she show me, would she critique my work, etc."
Norman took a special interest in Perkins. Now "Ann is someone I can go to for advice on anything professionally," Perkins says.
Qualities of a Good Mentor
Perkins says Norman has the skill set she is working to gain, along with a personality and ideals that mesh well with her own. It's important to look for all those traits and more in a prospective on-the-job mentor, says mentoring expert Beverly Kaye, who devotes an entire chapter to the topic in Love It, Don't Leave It: 26 Ways to Get What You Want at Work.
"Look for someone who is well-respected…and willing to be themselves, someone who has the time to be available, someone who is either really technically smart or people smart and someone who has a great reputation," Kaye advises.
Another way to find a mentor is by using a career mentor program, which can help match you up with someone in your specific field of interest.
But keep this in mind: An on-the-job mentor won't help you in the long run if he isn't truthful with you, even if it means being brutal at times, says management expert Lonnie Pacelli.
"Your mentor must be a straight shooter," says Pacelli, author of The Project Management Advisor: 18 Major Project Screw-Ups, and How to Cut Them Off at the Pass. Your mentor's job isn't to tear you apart, but he does need to help you "learn appropriate business behavior and not reinforce bad behavior by not saying anything," he says.
If all goes well, you'll develop a fruitful professional relationship with someone who will be not just your trusted counselor and guide, but also your advocate, just as Perkins has done with Norman at Coltrin & Associates.
"Ann has been great about sending me encouragement and ‘job-well-dones' and CCing the boss on those," Perkins says. "I think because she has invested in me, she's more than happy to tout my achievements."