Find a mentor
I was recently asked to write a post describing the skills that employees should be working on to further their career. I ended up writing three posts which focused on different sets of skills needed to succeed in the workplace. The skills listed below are not a focus in most college curriculums and for me personally, this is a $25K-a-year college tuition travesty!
These skills are listed and linked here:
Before I wrote that series of posts, I thought I had three high impact steps you could take to further your career. Of course, since then, I feel I have yet another game changer and one that is more impactful. This weeks post covers this career accelerator and more specifically, how to set yourself up for success with this specific tool.
I believe the most important thing you can do for your career is to find a mentor or a coach.
When I say mentor or coach, I do NOT mean two specific things:
- I don’t believe you need to have a coach that you pay $250 an hour for. I think that 99% of us, including a lot of executives, can find a coach/mentor that will help out for the cost of lunches, coffees and maybe a referral when needed.
- Joining a mentorship program where the program manager pairs up 10 mentors and 10 mentee’s, hoping for 10 great matches. 10 great matches out of 10 pairs of mentor/mentees just aren’t going to happen. If you get 1 great match up out of those 10 pairings, call the program a success. We have all been part of these programs and as well-intentioned as they are, they are superficial efforts, designed to look good and check a “development helpful” box for “future manager to be”, or worse a “poor manager that is working on a development helpful”. Yes, there are a few successful programs out there, but for the most part, these are painful exercises where commitments long past worn out are required because a contract of commitment was signed. Ask me how I really feel about mentor programs.
I have what I consider to be a number of mentors in my life and none of them have an HR background. I do believe they have all had a huge impact on my life and what they added to my toolbox of fly fishing, fly tying, M&A, Finance, or blogging knowledge has made me a better HR practitioner. None of these mentors come from a mentor program and no signatures of commitment were required.
What is a mentor to me?
A mentor to me is the “wise one” in a specific field of study. Some mentors are old guys that have decades of experience. Some mentors are younger individuals with new school knowledge and cutting-edge answers. But at the end of the day, the people I call mentors are individuals who I respect, who I want to be around, and who are gracious with their knowledge. The relationship isn’t a mentorship if I don’t feel 110% comfortable as the mentee. Every relationship is different but if I can’t put myself “out there” with someone, they are probably not mentoring material for me. If asked, most of these mentors would laugh and say:
“I am not HRNasty’s mentor, he just has a lot of questions and always brings good cigars for us to share. We pull up a couple of chairs, fire up some cigars and then he starts taking a voracious amount of notes. No, I am not his mentor”. These folks are humble that way.
So why hook up with a mentor?
The main reason for me is to shorten the learning curve. If I can talk with someone who has been there and done that, then maybe I don’t have to spend so much time learning from YouTube and can spend less time in my trial and error stages. When I am stuck on a problem and have tried a number of failed solutions, it is a luxury to be able to go to someone, explain my efforts and then receive help with a solution. Usually these solutions are obvious to the mentor and only then obvious to me. But I would be dumbass to think that I am the first person to run into these problems. The mentor has been there and done that or can hook me up with someone who has.
What I look for in a mentor
- This person should be at least a couple of levels of experience beyond my own. Anakin Skywalker had Obi-Wan Kenobi, Daniel-san had Mr. Miyagi and if you are a mid-level manager, you want to find a Director or VP. Someone with only a few additional years of experience probably won’t have the insight you are looking for.
- If you belong to a minority, there are benefits to finding a mentor that has overcome similar challenges. I am not saying it is required, I am saying there are benefits.
- Mandatory dating analogy: I am short, with a face for radio (or a mask and glasses), and not the sharpest tool in the shed. If I am looking for a mentor to help me with my social life, as good as Fabio sounds, I would much rather have someone who looks like me. The Quasimoto that is constantly surrounded by women is who I want helping me with my game. At 6 foot 4 with abs, Fabio doesn’t have my problems. If Quasimoto can get the girl, so can I. The guy that comes to mind is Jason Acuna, AKA WeeMan from the Jackass Crew.
Here is the usual list of apprehension and push back I hear when I suggest looking for the mentor:
- “I don’t think I can approach my current Director of VP.”
- “I do not know any Sr. level people, all of my friends are new in their careers.”
- “I don’t’ think I can bother the executive that is running our department. My manager only gets to meet with her once every other week!”
- “How many times do I meet with this person?”
- “I’m scared.”
Where do I find a mentor, how do I hook it up?
Think about your network, your significant others network, and your parent’s network. There are a few people within these circles that we all admire for one reason or another. There are people in these circles that are in similar industries and can make introductions to folks who can help.
I wouldn’t just march into the VP’s office and ask “Hey, will you be my mentor”? Think, baby steps.
I am confident that anyone of these folks would be flattered to be asked out to coffee so their brain could be picked on a topic they are an expert on. A majority of my friends have children in high school and just entering college. I am ALWAYS flattered when one of these young people reaches out to me to ask about resume writing or interviewing skills. 90% of the time, the parents aren’t aware of the young person’s initiative. I get an email or a text, we meet over coffee (they offer, but I treat) and they come prepared with a list of questions and take notes. Who doesn’t want to help someone who is obviously trying to help themselves and putting themselves out there to “figure it out”. I usually get a follow-up thank you via text or email and then I volunteer to continue to help. I wouldn’t call myself a mentor at this point, but over time, these relationships that are built over time are pretty rewarding.
These relationships were developed organically, casually, and both parties found benefit. I may make it really easy for younger people, but the relationships that last are usually driven by the one seeking knowledge. After all, no one wants to help anyone that won’t help him or herself.
Some relationships are consistent with a meeting every couple of months and others can be on fire for 6 weeks as someone fires up a job search and then die out for a year or two. I appreciate the consistent relationships a little more and I am confident that both parties get a lot more out of these regular touches in the long run. Every meeting doesn’t have to be knowledge specific. Sometimes it is nice to just keep in touch.
For myself, when I am seeking knowledge I try to focus on a couple of things:
- As a Kohai, I want to make it as easy as possible on my Sempai or Obi-Wan Kenobi. I meet on their turf and on their time. I always specify before we meet what challenges I am trying to solve for.
- I show respect and make it a point to articulate my appreciation of their knowledge. I articulate how much time, money, and or frustration they are saving me and how much I appreciate their time.
- I try to follow-up with an email explaining the specific things I took away from our session. It is as much of a wrap up of notes as it is a show that I take their time seriously.
- I bring food, alcohol or offer to buy lunch or coffee. Nothing fancy, but the gesture is made and usually declined.
We are all responsible for our own careers and our own destiny. If we wait for the company to invite us to a mentor program, the odds are not going to be in your favor. Mentorship relationships can be very informal, just make sure you show your appreciation and respect.
Are you in a mentor relationship? If so, please share some of the benefits you experience in the comments below.
See you at the after party,
nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.