Seeking a mentor? Follow these crucial steps

Establishing a mutually beneficial mentoring relationship entails more than just picking a senior colleague’s brain. This Q-and-A will help both parties get the most out of the arrangement.

Mentorship has been invaluable to me as a young professional. I’ve come to see my mentors as friends in many respects, too.

I recently found myself talking up the mentoring experience with a co-worker. Because I’ve gained so much from my experiences, I wanted to share advice to others seeking a mentor.

Shift Communications’ learning and development coordinator, Kristina Norris, oversees its mentoring program and is a mentor herself. Check out our Q-and-A below to discover not only how to find the right mentor for you, but also how to make the most of the experience.

Why is having a mentor so important to your professional growth?

A mentor can provide professional development outside your daily tasks and team members. A mentor has more experience in the career path you’re attempting to navigate and can provide unbiased guidance or perspective.

When is it appropriate to seek out a mentor at your workplace?

Many organizations encourage you to start considering selecting a mentor after 90 days. For me, the timeline is less important. Focus on making sure the mentoring relationship is mutually beneficial and doesn’t feel forced. If you start at an organization and immediately click with someone willing to take you under his wing, test it out. Your mentor should provide the support and guidance you need while you work toward your goals.

Here are three preliminary questions to ensure you’re on the same page and that it will be a successful mentoring relationship:

  • During the next six months to a year, what do you want to learn or achieve?
  • How often would you like to meet and in what kind of setting?
  • What are some ways you like to learn, and what we can learn from each other?

Should you have multiple mentors in mind in case your first choice can’t make the commitment?

Definitely. You can’t expect others to be willing to take on the time investment that goes into mentoring another person. Work/life balance is important, and although someone might want to bring on a mentee, they might have too much going on or your schedules may not sync. Never take it personally.

What should you look for in a mentor?

You should already know the goals and skills you would like to improve before selecting a mentor. If you’re looking for feedback on what is preventing you from moving up within your organization, you might want to reconsider reaching out to a mentor from a different department who doesn’t have insight into the competencies your role requires for promotion. However, if you’re working on improving your leadership or management style, reaching out to a senior leader from any part of the organization might provide a unique and valuable perspective.

How often should mentoring sessions take place?

This depends on what works best for both the mentor and mentee. From the start, both parties should discuss the type of relationship and time commitment they’re comfortable with. Mentees are responsible for maintaining the mentoring momentum, which also means the meetings don’t always have to be formal; grabbing lunch or coffee or scheduling a walking meeting are great alternatives. Outlining these details from the outset will set you up for success in the long run.

What types of things should a mentor and mentee discuss?

At the beginning of the mentoring lifecycle, it can be helpful to cover topics that allow you to look inward. For example, sharing personal interests, strengths and weaknesses, as well as helpful learning experiences and professional hurdles you’re working to overcome, can be a great way to get to know your mentor or mentee and assist in identifying proactive approaches for addressing specific challenges. A mentor is an advisor—not a therapist. Discussions should be based on reflection and involve mutual sharing with a focus on implicit professional growth tactics that relate to the goals underpinning your mentoring partnership.

Are there any major dos and don’ts for working with your mentor?

Do:

  • ​Have the courage to step out of your comfort zone and set expectations early on about your objectives and goals for the mentoring partnership.
  • Demonstrate your openness to feedback and learning.
  • Listen carefully to your mentor’s advice, and ask thoughtful questions.
  • Consider and incorporate the insights that make sense for your career.
  • Never forget that you are responsible for your own development.
  • Respect your mentor’s time and other responsibilities.

Don’t:

  • Be defensive when receiving feedback or advice.
  • Hold your mentor responsible for your growth.
  • Refrain from asking questions because of your mentor’s reputation or position; this will waste time and energy for both of you.
  • ​Let your mentor dominate the discussion or meeting.​​​​ Take the initiative to discuss what is occupying your mind and examine your thoughts and concerns.
  • Be judgmental of your mentor’s experiences or choices; she is being open-minded about you.
  • Don’t impose expectations that are an imposition or unreasonable.

What can mentees offer to make this a mutually beneficial experience?

Mentors should be using this experience to build on their leadership, active listening and coaching skills. Mentees can give back to their mentor by sharing the issues they’re facing at a junior level or simply by reflecting on the advice that has accelerated the mentee’s growth and why it has helped. Sometimes being challenged on perceived wisdom can prompt professionals at any level to reevaluate and identify strategic approaches to ongoing issues.

What advice would you give to young professionals who are too early on at their company to join the mentor program or whose company does not have a mentoring program in place?

Driven professionals can foster mentoring experiences by accepting help from experienced co-workers and industry professionals and by taking advantage of this informal development opportunity. It’s your responsibility to learn by asking thoughtful questions, researching and requesting feedback, even if it’s in the moment or following up the next time you run into them. It’s easy to stunt your professional development if you come across as defensive or presume that you know all the answers from the start.

Zach Burrus is a marketing analyst. A version of this article originally appeared on the Shift Communications blog.

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