A Powerful Mechanism For Success

The positive effect a mentor can have on your career

by Jamison V. Kovach

Successful people never reach their goals alone. We all rely on mentors, whether formal or informal, to support our career development and advancement. For example, professionals often encounter situations in which their career path is ill defined. They may feel they lack support in their current position or that there are few opportunities for their professional development, and look for a mentor forguidance.

Common questions people ask when considering a mentor include:

  • How do I find a mentor?
  • What are the roles of a mentee and mentor?
  • What do I want to get out of a mentoring relationship?
  • How can I create a mentoring program if my organization doesn’t have one?

How to find a mentor

Finding a mentor is easier than you might think, but it doesn’t necessarily start with asking someone to be your mentor. Because mentors typically provide advice and guidance based on the knowledge and wisdom they have gained from their experiences, you may find you already have several informal mentors.

Just think about the colleagues or professional or personal contacts from whom you seek advice when you have a question or are faced with a tough situation. If you don’t have these types of colleagues or contacts, consider how you might cultivate such a relationship.

As detailed later in this column, the first step in developing a mentoring relationship is for you and your potential mentor to get to know each other and establish whether the potential mentor is willing to give his or her time to help support your professional development and advancement.

Mentoring is not a one-way street, but rather a mutually beneficial relationship. Mentees and mentors typically report professional and personal growth through their discussions and interactions with each other.

Who does what?

While it may be obvious that a mentoring relationship involves a mentee and a mentor, the responsibilities of the mentee and mentor may not be obvious. One role of a mentor is to encourage their mentee to be proactive with respect to their mentoring relationship. This means a mentee should be open to asking questions and discussing concerns with their mentor.

In addition, a mentee should be receptive to feedback and willing to listen to the advice provided by their mentor. Of course, it is up to the mentee whether to act on that advice.

On the other hand, a mentor typically serves as a trustworthy advisor, problem solver, strategist and advocate for their mentee. In addition to providing advice and guidance, a mentor also can assist his or her mentee by making referrals or suggesting other helpful resources.

What you get out of it

A mentor can help you with a wide variety of needs. Typically, people look for support in one or more of the following areas:

  • Professional development. You may need help learning how to manage time, resolve conflicts, administer projects, supervise others or make strategic decisions about your time commitments.
  • Emotional support. As you transition from one role to another throughout your career, you may need support dealing with the common stresses and pressures that are often encountered.
  • A sense of community. Because you may have uprooted your life and moved to a new area for your job, you may find yourself seeking a community to help you feel a sense of belonging.
  • Sponsorship. You may need assistance cultivating relationships with people at your organization who are invested in your success (for example, senior colleagues willing to use their power to advocate for your best interests behind closed doors).
  • Access to networks. Because knowledge isn't produced in isolation, it's critical for you to connect with others to discuss potential collaborations and obtain access to networks that might not be immediately apparent to you as a new member of your organization.
  • Project-specific feedback. Having regular communication with others who can provide substantive feedback regarding your current work and new ideas can be beneficial.

Given this diverse list of needs, you may find that one mentor alone cannot address all your needs. Instead, you may find it more beneficial to develop a broad array of mentors inside and outside your organization, including senior colleagues, peers and friends, for example, to provide support, feedback and advice.

How to create a mentoring program

If your organization doesn’t have a formal mentoring program, here are a few recommended steps for creating one:

1. Appoint an individual or establish a group in your organization to oversee the mentoring program.

2. Identify and recruit people who would like to be mentees and people willing to serve as mentors.

3. Each mentee should be matched with a mentor. Instead of trying to create a perfect mentoring match, which can be difficult, aim to establish the best possible match by identifying three to five criteria (position, job responsibilities, personal interests, gender, race or country of origin, for example) to use when matching mentees and mentors.

Whatever criteria you select, be sure to include it in your recruiting process. For example, create a brief form for mentees and mentors to complete before participating in the program.

4. After a match has been made, facilitate the process of bringing the pairs together for mentoring sessions. Help make the initial introductions between the mentees and mentors, and encourage the pairs to meet regularly. At least once a month is recommended.

In terms of the specific logistics regarding mentoring sessions, a mentee and mentor should exchange résumés prior to their first session to help them get acquainted. The first mentoring session should focus on providing the mentoring pair time to get to know each other.

Also during this first session, the mentee and mentor should discuss the purpose of their mentoring relationship. What do they each hope to get out of it? In addition, they should discuss their expectations regarding confidentiality. Typically, it is a good idea to establish what is said between mentee and mentor always stays between mentee and mentor.

The mentee and mentor also should discuss how they prefer to communicate—via email, phone or face-to-face, for example—as well as how often they’ll meet. Again, at least once a month is recommended.

The person or group overseeing the mentoring program should check in occasionally with the mentoring pairs to see how the relationships are progressing and provide ongoing support.

5. For a mentoring program to be successful, consider developing a way to recognize the contributions of everyone involved.

For a mentoring relationship to be successful, each member of the mentoring pair should be fully committed to the relationship. This involves, for example, making a reasonable time commitment to the relationship, providing prompt responses to inquiries and ensuring confidentiality.

Finally, organizations can support successful mentoring relationships by developing mentoring guides and providing formal training for mentoring pairs.

Jamison V. Kovach is an associate professor at the University of Houston in Texas. She holds a doctorate in industrial engineering from Clemson University in South Carolina. Kovach was awarded ASQ’s Feigenbaum medal in 2010 and promoted to a full Academician in the International Academy for Quality in 2015. Kovach received her lean Six Sigma Black Belt certification from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. She is a senior member of ASQ and past chair of ASQ Houston Division.

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