One of the most important things you should do, at any stage of your career, is to find a mentor. Without a mentor, your climb up your career ladder may be a bit shaky, or you may even fall off.
Some companies already have mentorship programmes in place. Once you join, the company assigns a mentor to you. This mentor’s role is to help you develop yourself professionally. Assigned mentors are good but usually not great.
Since assigned mentors must carry out this role, they usually lack passion, are over-burdened and simply go through the motions. Therefore it is important that when you join and have the option of having a mentor, you should try to have some influence in the process.
If you are assigned a mentor who is not very helpful, work with them, but try to find yourself another informal mentor. There is no reason you cannot have more than one mentor.
When you are new, you are not aware of all the rules and processes, therefore having two mentors allows you to have checks and balances in place. Two mentors serve as a healthy sounding board.
How do you choose a mentor?
First, as much as you need to select a mentor, he or she also needs to select you.
Avoid mentors co-workers recommend as:
“John has been here for 30 years and knows this business inside and out”, or
“Shirley is easy to work with and people like her”.
People who are friendly sometimes try to be “liked” too much, and at the expense of providing good advice. Good advice is not always popular or well received and they may be unwilling to do this.
Usually it is a subconscious style and they don’t even know it is happening. Either way, you do not benefit. You want a mentor who has demonstrated real success in the business, is respected for those skills and will push you to reach your potential rather than make you feel good about yourself.
Do not confuse a mentor and a friend. Friends in the office are the nice people who show you around and go for coffee with you. Mentors push you to be your best.
Look for a mentor who knows how to succeed and someone who wants you to succeed. If you are mentored by someone who took 8 years to be promoted, the odds are they do not know how to progress, or worse, they think 8 years in one position is normal. That will just slow you down. You need to find someone who is open-minded and if you progress faster than they did, they are fine with this. They need to want to see you succeed.
Find a mentor who does not have a big ego. Some mentors like the role since it implies they are guiding junior employees. These are not mentors. They are employees who seek to feel important by working with junior people.
It is best to find a mentor who is not involved in your business unit. Your mentor must not be involved with you on a day-to-day basis. They must be able to offer a fresh perspective and this is not possible if they work with you on a daily basis.
Your mentor is not your champion. Do not expect them to come out and publicly support you or champion you. That person is called your “champion” or your “sponsor”. Your mentor guides you to help you achieve your potential.
Do not pick mentors based on their so-called “political” networks in the business. Whether you like it or not, you are too new to the business to understand the “in-crowd” nor can you trust a co-workers judgement on this. Remember that political “parties” come and go, even in business. It is better to operate outside this circle.
Your mentor is not someone you speak to daily, weekly or even monthly. At best you may speak monthly but it’s usually less frequent. A good mentor is not going to get involved in the details, and you should not expect them to. They are helping you plan the arc of your life and career. An arc is developed over many months and usually years. They want to discuss your plans and ideas, and strategy to achieve your goals.
Things about which you should be extra careful
“How do I do that?” is probably the sentence that annoys mentors more than anything else, especially if it is the standard response you have to their advice. Mentors do not like getting into the operating detail. They do not have the time and do not have access to all the information you know to answer this question correctly. Moreover, having to answer this question tells the mentor you are likely not worth their time.
Mentors will provide guidance and ideas. It is your job to find a way to execute this advice. If a mentor tells you “it is important for you to build a good relationship with finance director”, it will really annoy your mentor if you will ask “How?”.
Your mentor is not there to hold your hand. If you want a good mentor, make sure you are at the state where you are capable of using the knowledge and guidance you receive. Simply having a good mentor is not enough. You have to be a great mentee.
When your mentor outlines an idea, it is your job to figure out how to make it happen or at least present your high level thoughts.
Demonstrate respect and courtesy to your mentor at all times. Show your appreciation. They are not paid to do this, it takes away their time and they are making an investment where the payback is not at all clear. Show that you are actively using their advice. Make them proud of you. Validate their decision to help you.
Picking a mentor post-crises
If you want to be really successful then it is very important you find a good mentor or two.
In my experience, don’t be hasty to pick one as soon as you start. Take a few months to find one. In fact, wait until after you have been through a small crisis at the office. When there is a problem then the internal power structure of an organisation shows itself and you can quickly see how and who makes decisions. You need this to understand how the company works and the guidance you specifically need.