You don’t need to be a contestant on The X Factor to have a mentor. Whether you’re starting out in your management career or in a senior position, having someone who can share the benefit of their experience and support your progress can prove invaluable.
As Simon North, founder of Position Ignition (www.positionignition.com), says: ‘being a manager can be lonely. Having a safe space to talk through your issues with somebody more experienced can be hugely helpful – and sometimes cathartic. If you are offered a mentor, grab the opportunity because it will be good for you.’
So what qualities should you look for in a great mentor and what can you bring to the relationship? We asked the career experts to share their top tips.
What do you want out of it?
Before you approach individuals or sign up to a company or industry mentorship scheme, think carefully about what you want to get out of the relationship. Are you hoping to develop soft skills, such as persuasion and leadership, broaden your professional network or do you need someone to coach you through your next promotion?
You need to consider and be up front about the level of commitment you expect. Are you looking for a long-term arrangement or help to achieve a specific goal with a clear end date? The most experienced and successful professionals have limited time to spare – and need to feel assured you’re equally committed to make the relationship productive for both of you.
Can they listen, share and be vulnerable?
When it comes to choosing a mentor, start by looking at the career they’ve had. ‘Where has their experience been and what areas can you draw upon?’ asks Simon. Just because someone has achieved success doesn’t necessarily mean they have the skill to reflect and explain the relevant factors behind it. Instead, look at their ability to listen and share.
‘Whilst your mentor will transmit a lot of useful information, it works better for you if they listen, hear you and truly understand your context and your issues,’ says Simon. ‘Are they good at sharing? You don’t want a mentor who is always right and, with the benefit of hindsight, is always brilliant. Try and find somebody who is okay with their own vulnerability. Someone who will explain why they believe they got it wrong and made a mistake and how they would do it now with the benefit of the wisdom that they have accumulated.’
Trust enough to be challenged
The basis of your relationship with a mentor is trust, according to David Shindler (https://dash.bloomfire.com), performance coach and author of Learning To Leap (http://amzn.to/136jYOn). ‘Trust comes from getting to know each other and your assessment of their competence and care for you. Can you open up to this person? Is the focus on you, not them?’
A good mentor will both support and challenge you. ‘A mentor may need to dish out “tough love”. For this to work, you need to feel assured that they have your best interests at heart, which again, comes from trust,’ says David. ‘Be open to change a good mentor will challenge your assumptions and question your usual way of doing things. Be flexible and you’ll get more out of the experience.’
Are they well connected?
The opportunity to tap in your mentor’s network can be attractive, and it’s worth assessing how respected and well connected they are in the industry when considering who to work with. That doesn’t mean you should expect your mentor to hand over their contacts book. Getting access to people he or she has worked hard to build relationships with should be considered a bonus, and you should only use their name to open doors with their blessing.
Connections aren’t everything, of course. ‘Remember, your mentor can open doors for you but it’s up to you to walk through them,’ says David. ‘Equally, be wary of someone who says they will “put a good word in” for you for a position. That’s not mentoring.’
Help to develop your soft skills
A mentor can be a great way to help you develop your soft skills – but only if they have excellent communication and interpersonal skills themselves. ‘If you have a choice, seek out a mentor who is enacting the kinds of behaviours you want to learn,’ says Emma Sue Prince (www.the-advantage.info), author of The Advantage: The 7 Soft Skills You Need to Stay One Step Ahead (http://amzn.to/1tVJQZm).
‘A good mentor can help you identify gaps in your soft skills and build confidence but this comes from a trusting relationship where it is safe to talk about these kinds of things. If the goal is to improve your leadership skills, for example, a mentor will help identify situations when you could take on that role, how you might best approach it and the challenges you may face.’
You have responsibilities too
Mentors become trusted advisers and role models people who have “been there” and “done that,” according to Emma Sue. ‘They can support and encourage you by offering suggestions and knowledge, both general and specific. Sometimes they will act as a coach, helping you set goals and supporting you in taking action towards that goal.’ What they’re not is a therapist. ‘Make sure your meeting ends with clear action points, and be sure to follow up on them. You don’t want to go over old ground and waste your mentor’s time.’
A mentoring partnership can be rewarding to both people, personally and professionally, says Emma Sue. ‘It can help mentor and mentee to develop communication skills, expand their viewpoints, and consider new ways of approaching situations. And both partners can advance their careers in the process.’
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