Everyone tells you to seek out mentors in your career, but how exactly do you do that? And how do you interact with a mentor when you get one? Never fear, we have some answers for you.
I talked to Dr. Belle Rose Ragins, Professor of Human Resource Management at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and co-author of The Handbook of Mentoring at Work, who says an important first step is identifying someone who can be a good mentor for you. She points out that your mentor should be someone you respect and someone who's respected by others. However, the biggest star at your company or in your field may not be the best fit for you. What you really want is someone who will be concerned with your career and will have the time to invest in you and the patience to help you learn. Identifying people like this in your work life is the first step to forging a good mentoring relationship.
Ragins also told me that "there are no mentoring police" — no one's going to force you to make a mentoring relationship look a certain way. That relationship certainly can take the form of an ongoing one-on-one connection, but you can also have what she calls "mentoring episodes" — briefer interactions where you still learn something valuable. She explains, "you don't have to be in a mentoring relationship to give or get mentoring." If you think of mentoring as something that can take a lot of different shapes, formal or informal, it can be a lot less intimidating to seek out a mentor.
Asking someone to be your mentor is tough. Ragins points out that you probably don't want to barge into someone's office and be all like, "excuse-me-will-you-be-my-mentor." Instead, if there's someone whose brain you really want to pick, or whom you'd like to develop a closer working relationship with, think of some specific things you want their advice on. Then ask them to get lunch or coffee with you to talk about them. I also talked to Lois Zachary, bestselling author of The Mentor's Guide, The Mentee's Guide, and Creating a Mentoring Culture, who has similar advice. She advocates that potential mentees figure out what their "learning goals" are before approaching potential mentors — that way, you'll have concrete things to talk about and a clear picture of how the mentor can help you.
Ragins offers another possible way to approach a mentor: propose a new project or idea, and see how they react to it. Not only is this a good way to initiate a closer working relationship with someone, and potentially solicit their guidance — it's also a way to evaluate what they'll be like as a mentor. If they tear down your idea or aren't receptive, they may not be a good fit for you. But if they offer suggestions for improvement or help build on what you've proposed, you may have yourself a winner. And you can use that interaction as a springboard for future mentoring conversations.
Zachary suggests that when you're entering into a mentoring relationship with someone, you should have a talk with them — not just about what you want to learn, but about how you want the relationship to go. Talk about confidentiality — will what you say to your mentor stay between the two of you, or will she or he be sharing it with other people? Discuss how you'll handle any disagreements or problems that might come up. And make an agreement that if at any point the mentoring relationship ends, you'll make sure to have a "good closure conversation" that allows you both to express appreciation, talk about what you learned, and move on. Depending on the formality of your mentoring relationship, it may not make sense to talk about all these things explicitly, or all at the same time. But Zachary's advice is a good guide to the kinds of things you should be thinking about when a mentorship begins — including its possible end.
Zachary also advocates regular check-ins to make sure everything in the relationship is going smoothly. Touch base with each other about whether you're both getting your needs met — are you getting the advice you need? Are you being respectful enough of your mentee's time (something Ragins emphasizes is important)? Regular check-ins can help resolve disagreements or problems before they become major. They can also help you get the most out of your mentoring relationship. Again, you may not need to check in all the time with some of the more informal mentors Ragins describes. But if you're in an ongoing mentoring relationship with someone, Zachary says "you should always have a meeting date on the calendar."
Especially if you're friendly with your mentor, you may be tempted to talk about your personal life with him or her, and even to ask advice about personal matters. Depending on your relationship, this could be totally fine — after all, Ragins points out, a mentor can also be a friend. But she advocates that you "let the mentor lead the way with respect to disclosure." If your mentor keeps things super-professional, you may not want to ask her what to get your boyfriend for Christmas. But if she talks about what she's getting her spouse, that can be your cue to open up a little bit. Also, Ragins offers a reminder not to put your mentor in a difficult position ethically or legally by asking her to keep secrets she's actually obligated to divulge (an example could be if she is a mandatory reporter, and you tell her about sexual harassment but ask her to keep quiet).
Ragins notes that even if you leave your job, "no one's going to make you give your mentor back." If your mentor was a coworker, you might not see each other or talk as much as you once did. But you can still keep in touch by email and at networking events in your field, and you can still benefit from your mentor's expertise. Ragins recommends that rather than having one mentor at any given time, you should seek out multiple mentors, a "constellation of relationships" that give you the work wisdom you need. Obviously you don't need to be meeting with each of these mentors regularly, or even ever — Ragins says that a "long-distance mentor" can definitely be part of your constellation. But you can seek advice from any or all of them depending on the situation you find yourself in. Ragins adds that when you do find good mentors, you should "treasure those relationships like you treasure your friends," because "they are worth their weight in gold."
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