The extra value of Mentors

Research has shown that a good relationship with your direct report is positively correlated to career success – it makes sense.

When I ran a university careers counseling service I conducted a longitudinal study of 1,000 graduates, and my findings supported the notion that a good relationship with your first direct report or boss was so significant that it actually made the difference between career satisfaction and dissatisfaction, as well as career progression.

But some of us may not necessarily have a good relationship with our boss and we may not be in a position to transfer or shift.

Here is where good mentors can ameliorate the situation. You may not have a good relationship with your boss, but you can have an exceptional relationship with a mentor. Mentors have the added advantage of being an unofficial ‘sponsor’. They invariably mention you to colleagues, or bring opportunities to your attention as well as talking about you in a range of settings. Most mentors are at a generativity stage of their career - they take great pride and enjoyment from assisting you to flourish much as they would a family member. Your mentor may be more senior; may be aware that your manager is difficult; and may advocate on your behalf in ways you can’t imagine.

Mentors have the advantage of knowing what we don’t know we don’t know. Yet.

Many organizations may have a mentor program in place; you may be assigned a pertinent mentor. Other organizations may encourage you to locate a suitable mentor within the organization, or assume that you are career development self-reliant and seek out relevant mentors as a matter of course.

Some organizations encourage both internal and external mentors; you may select a couple of mentors for different purposes.

We may seek various mentors for professional growth at different times in our career trajectories. These people may be connected to our field, or perhaps have personal qualities that assist our development, regardless of their industry background.

I have always appreciated the benefit of having a couple for different reasons. In some organizations, your mentor may resign or fall from grace and this may have a deleterious effect on how you are perceived. I have observed a number of rising stars who were buried because they had been associated with a mentor who was headhunted, or retired. Having a couple of different mentors ensures that you won’t be isolated.

A mentor ‘appears’ – chance circumstance, an inspirational teacher, a wise leader, or professional association may present you with a potential relationship – or is approached after you have identified who would be a good fit. My research into what makes a great mentor has indicated the following:

Have at least one mentor who is only a few stages further along in their career than you – your career dilemmas and needs continue to easily resonate with them, and you can easily bridge the divide in your experience. While a very senior mentor can be a tremendous help, you may also require someone who is not yet a leader in the field so that you can imbibe the macro and micro issues.

Have a mentor who is similar to you in terms of your style regarding how structured or organized you are. For example, if you are spontaneous (in Type terms, you demonstrate a Perceiving preference) you would choose a spontaneous mentor. If you are structured and organized (in Type terms, you demonstrate a Judging preference) you would choose an organized mentor.

You may be quizzical – this does seem to be counter intuitive! Surely we choose a mentor who can help us master our areas of difficulty? Not in this case: having a mentor with a similar style on this scale is the most useful choice. You will both function from your positions of strength and flow. Presumably, your mentor has managed to negotiate relationships with their opposites, and they will have much to teach you.

Finally, choose a mentor whom you feel safe to reveal your vulnerabilities, fears, and problems. It is pointless to select a mentor that you don’t trust. Great mentors can hold the duality of your brilliance and mistakes. They maintain confidentiality, and provide a safe space for you to explore, rehearse, revisit mishaps, while holding up a mirror to your blindspots.

If you haven’t come across a mentor who inspires you or seems to take an interest, (with that soothing way of discussing career issues whilst confronting you with unpalatable truth); you might consider searching through professional associations, digital professional media such as LinkedIn, and asking contacts who they would recommend for you.

While I have concerns about connecting with work related people on facebook, I am a huge advocate for connecting with professional networks on digital media. Your digital networks help you locate global mentors as well as quirky options you wouldn’t tend to think of.

Lastly, in return for the gift of their time and generosity in sharing practitioner wisdom, what might you bring to this relationship, apart from your boundless enthusiasm and gratitude? You might think about passing on resources, offering to undertake some tasks they dislike, preparing a delicious breakfast for your meeting, or discussing some ways of honouring them in kind.

Over the course of our careers we may have a number of mentors, sequentially or simultaneously. Mentors are significant threads in our career lives and their ideas or feedback may reverberate at unexpected times over our lives.

Working with B*tches

Career counseling for the disappointed
Meredith Fuller

Meredith Fuller is the author of Working with Bitches and a vocational psychologist and career change and development specialist.

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