You face an important decision in your career and don’t know what to do. You’re in a difficult work situation and are under a lot of pressure. Your confidence is low, and encouragement from others just doesn’t cheer you up. Your world seems to be coming to an end. You need a mentor.
A mentor is someone who shows you the ropes. He or she is usually a bit older than you and in a more senior position, perhaps in your organization or in your professional society network. A mentor can even be a close friend or relative. I’ve benefited in my career from a half-dozen mentors, including Bud (at work), Kim (an alum, still a mentor), and my Uncle Joe (who helped me buy my first car and my first house).
Mentors listen to you and give you advice you couldn’t get elsewhere. They talk with you, review your résumé and work situation, help you do your “SWOT”—identifying your internal strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats—and help you think through career options and goals and develop action plans.
Don’t be shy: start by contacting a person you feel good about. Most likely the person knows who you are, but on some occasions it may be a stranger, in which case you’d have to explain how you came to call. But don’t ask, “Do you want to be my friend?” This is not about making friends. Instead, ask directly if the person’s willing to give you career advice from time to time, even to meet with you regularly, say, for lunch.
Remember that this is a long-term relationship and a two-way street: you get advice, and your mentor gets the chance to pass on wisdom. Therefore, never regard your mentor as merely someone to network with. Forcing the person into a not-so-hidden agenda can disrupt the building of a trusting relationship.
Mentors should be easy to find, and you probably already know a handful of people who may fill the bill. Write down their names and see which one(s) you feel comfortable getting closer to.
Determine whether your organization or professional society has a formal mentoring program. I’ve been a mentor for 10 years in a transportation society and am matched with “apprentices” who have between 5 and 10 years’ experience. A mentor within your organization gives the added benefit of understanding your corporate culture and can advise you on which career moves would be valuable. He or she may also understand the people with whom you may be having some difficulty.
With a mentor providing support, you won’t be alone when you’re facing a difficult situation or frozen with indecision at an important career opportunity. You’ll get objective feedback from a more experienced professional who has your best interests at heart and who may be able to suggest approaches you hadn’t considered. And you’re making another professional friend. Many of my dozen former apprentices have kept up our relationship, albeit at a less intense level, which has been very personally satisfying as I’ve watched their careers develop.
You have to make the first move, and that can be the biggest hurdle. Go out and find yourself a mentor in the next few weeks. Then make the most of this relationship to help you advance your career.