Want to Help Someone Grow? Ask Them to Mentor YOU!

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How do pro football players, concert pianists, and chess grandmasters get to be so good? Sure, they generally start with natural talent and families and communities that support them, but they also have a secret weapon—coaches who teach them core skills, push them to their limits, and make sure they stay competitive. Even if you don’t dream of making it big in one of these realms, you could still benefit from finding a mentor to guide you through your professional and personal challenges.

But how exactly do you find a mentor? Sometimes you just meet one by chance, sometimes it takes a little more detective work on your part, and sometimes you’re lucky enough to work in an organization with a formalized mentorship process. We’ll cover a few more strategies for finding mentors below (and in a future post), but today we’re really going to focus on how it works in an organization that has a structured mentorship program.

And, as an added bonus, we have a little secret for you. If you’re afraid that you’d be a huge burden on your potential mentor, you’ll want to read what Vanessa Strauss, a manager for a government agency in the Washington DC area has to say about how being a mentor has been such a great experience for her.

What is the mentorship program like at your agency?

The formal part of the Mentoring Program lasts for one year; mentors and mentorees are encouraged to stay in touch for longer periods of time informally. The program each year has 100 participants (50 mentors/50 mentorees). Mentors and mentorees are matched based on a questionnaire. Mentors are required to be mid-level professionals or managers or higher in the organization.

How did you find out about the mentorship program and decide to get involved? How long have you been participating?

The first year the program was established our Chairman sent out an announcement encouraging staff to become involved. The email discussed the benefits of the program, program requirements, and the personal commitments the mentor and mentoree would be making.

I decided to fill out the questionnaire and was not selected the first year to be a mentor; however the second year, after expressing my interest again, I was paired with three potential mentorees. They each called and “interviewed” me.  I was selected by two individuals and the program coordinator choose the individual I was most compatible with for me to mentor. That was over 17 years ago and I am still in contact with my first mentoree and several other mentorees I’ve had during the course of the program.

What is a typical exchange like between you and your mentoree?

My first mentoree was not located in the same city as me, so we primarily talked over the phone. She did have to travel to the Washington area and I met with her face to face during her time in the program. Since that time we have kept in touch over the phone or when either of us has traveled to the other person’s location. We made a commitment during the one-week training we attended together to talk at a certain time for one hour, bi-weekly. We worked out the time differences and kept our commitment—barring an important meeting or travel difficulty. If we missed a date we made up the appointment later or we caught up on our next regularly scheduled talk.

Our conversations were led by the mentoree (in the application process the mentoree describes what he or she would like to achieve from the relationship with the mentor—the responses range from learning to increase their knowledge of the corporation to discussion of next career move. The only reason which is not allowed as a topic for participation in the program is with the goal to get their next promotion).

What have been your favorite aspects of being a mentor?

My favorite aspect of being a mentor was the relationship I built with each mentoree. I was blessed enough to get to know people in the organization who I would not have had an opportunity to meet without participating in the program. I’ve enjoyed sharing in not only the professional lives of the mentorees I know but in their personal lives also. My first mentoree and I trade stories of our children and try to keep in touch for various milestones in their lives.

What are some lessons you’ve learned from being a mentor?

I have learned that mentoring does not just have to be about getting the next job. In some cases I have had the pleasure of developing casual friendships with individuals I have mentored. We correspond when there are significant events in our lives; talk about our children, and support one another during difficult times.

I have also learned so many new things dealing with technology and social media—something this baby boomer really appreciated. I also gained a lot in discussions to get new and different perspectives on ways of accomplishing tasks, and help with working with gen Xers in my office.

What advice would you give to college students or recent graduates who are seeking a mentor but don’t know where to find one?

If  you are seeking a mentor at your college, talk to your professors or their graduate assistants. They are often a wonderful resource.

If you are looking for someone with recent experience, the graduate student is probably a bigger help. For the recent graduate, find someone who has been in the company for a few years. If you are just starting out, finding someone closer to your age group would be good.

Most of the time recent hires think they have to establish a relationship with a senior manager or the CEO. If you establish a mentoring relationship with a recent graduate (three to five years out of school), they can give you more recent experience and helpful information (after all, they recently went through being the “the new kid on the block”).

Mentors can be found in a variety of places—not just work or school. They can be in religious organizations, social groups, networking groups, etc. I have also found it is rewarding to know what you want from the relationship. It is important to have clear goals and establish a good connection with your mentoree. Most important is to make the mentoring a partnership with two-way communication so you are not always the follower but the leader as well; and LISTEN, LISTEN, AND LISTEN SOME MORE.

Homework time! Vanessa suggests a few ways for you to seek out a mentor, depending on where you are in your professional and academic career. Remember that you don’t necessarily need to start by asking someone straight out if they’ll be your mentor. Start by inviting them out to coffee to discuss one particular issue (like how they got to their current position and or how they handled one specific challenge). If the meeting goes well, see if they’d be open to speaking with you again.

P.S. Have a mentorship story you’d like to share? Were you the mentor or “mentoree”? What did you learn from the experience? Let us know in the comments!

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