When executive mentor Bobb Biehl asks men if they admire and aspire to be like anyone in their own careers, they usually can name a few people. But the question stumps many women.
Often, these women are the first in their families to reach the upper echelons of business and don’t have much of a career support system. Like any pioneers, they tend to face new terrain alone, sometimes unsure where to turn, Biehl explains.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Whether you are a student or headed for the top, you can benefit from finding a mentor or mentors. Learn about why it’s important and how to find the right one.
The Benefits of Having a Mentor
According to Biehl, people who have mentors usually have a more clearly defined concept of self and a network of contacts who can provide valuable resources when trying to meet their goals.
Many people report having more than one mentor, with each serving a different purpose -- from someone who helps them organize and achieve their career goals to someone else who supports their role as mother.
In fact, experts say women benefit most from finding a mentor. “Having a mentor helps women to have people in our life who care about us, listen to us and question us without any agenda,” says Jeanne Hartley, principal of training and organizational consulting practice Jeanne Hartley Consulting. “They celebrate our successes with us, and we can go to them with our doubts.”
Women particularly need this sort of support. “Women are making great inroads in middle management,” says Ellen Ensher, coauthor of Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Proteges Get the Most Out of Their Relationships and associate professor of management at Loyola Marymount University. “But we haven’t made the same inroads to the top yet, and it’s harder to get there without mentors.”
Finding the One
You’re ready for a mentor if you’re willing to take advice and criticism, put forth an effort and maintain relationships. But not everyone is mentor material. Many liken the process of finding a mentor to dating, because you’re looking for someone with whom you have chemistry, feel comfortable, can communicate and share similar interests and goals.
Just as dating coaches advise you to cast a wide net when searching for Mr. Right, those who have been through the mentoring process suggest emailing or calling everyone you know to tell them you’re interested in finding a mentor. Be specific about what kind of mentor you need and your goals. Also, look for potential mentors around you. Is there a professor or executive with whom you have a connection?
Once you’ve narrowed down your list of potential mentors, ask each for a meeting. Have a list of questions ready to determine your compatibility as mentor and protégé. Does this person’s expertise coincide with what you need to learn? What experience does this person bring? Do you get along?
Also consider formal mentoring programs, often offered by companies or professional organizations. But if you don’t think you’ll find the right match there, have the courage to do an independent search.
Avoiding Mr. Wrong
Don’t take the similarities between dating and mentoring to mean you should merge the two. There’s no law prohibiting women from asking men to mentor them or vice versa; these associations are often quite successful. But make sure to keep the relationship all business from the start, say experts.
It’s best to avoid mentoring relationships where there’s a lot of sexual tension. “You must be present and use your intuition,” Hartley warns. “Don’t ignore signs of flirtation.”
Once you’ve chosen a mentor, the next step is asking. For many women, this is the toughest part of the process. “Women have a unique sense of pride,” says Leah Kendall, graduate assistant for Leadership Programs and Women Student Services at the University of South Carolina. “Admitting weakness and asking for help can be difficult.”
Deciding that you deserve to have a mentor and to find success is most important, says Ensher. Be calm and explain that you’d like this person to mentor you. Avoid awkwardness by remaining upbeat and expressing your admiration.
Once you both decide to move forward, take charge. Be specific about what you want to gain from this relationship, how much time you’ll need and each of your responsibilities.
Establishing the Relationship
Those who’ve had successful mentoring experiences suggest setting certain parameters, such as agreeing to monthly face-to-face meetings, with telephone calls and emails as supplements. Clearly articulate your goals and their timelines for achievement. Discuss rules, such as when it’s inappropriate to call. This is also a good time to discuss confidentiality of discussions and meetings. You’ll likely be opening up to someone in the same industry, so you’ll both need to be discreet.
Many women like to share, confide and nurture friendships. All of this helps once a person becomes your mentor. Remember to follow through on the suggestions and tasks your mentor assigns, and let him know you have done so. This lets the mentor know you’re serious.
Basic etiquette is a must. Say please and thank you. If your mentor helps you succeed at a particular task, share the glory, Ensher advises. No one wants to be taken for granted, especially when volunteering despite a busy schedule.
Biehl warns not to expect your mentor to do all the work. He should offer suggestions on your resume, not write it for you. He can introduce you to people with whom you can network but should not have to ask them to do things for you. Never take advantage of the mentor’s network.
Be sure to take initiative and reach out to your mentor regularly, even after you’ve met major goals. Aim to eventually transition into a mutual mentorship, where you are able to help one another. Experts say you can rely on each other for things like sharing contacts and providing input on projects.
In fact, being open to learning is the key to a fruitful relationship. “When you have encouragement and see that your mentor accomplished X, Y and Z, it gives you inspiration and hope,” says Jane Dikdan, a senior human resources coordinator in the Los Angeles entertainment industry. “Having someone to look up to is important."
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