In the classical trades like carpentry, cooking, tailoring, even plumbing there is a long tradition of mentoring. Individuals more established and experienced in a particular industry foster relationships with the newer generations by becoming mentors to members of the fledgling ranks. They pass along skills, trade secrets and lessons learned in an effort to educate and support their mentees. Through mentoring companies and even entire industries experience the benefit of continuity; continuity of tradition, practices and standards. On the receiving end mentees are given the chance to share newer trends and technology with their elders in an effort to evolve their chosen field.
Mentorships are far less common in the world of businesses. The competitive culture in a lot of large companies makes the teacher/student dynamic an unsteady one. And in small businesses there is rarely the time to maintain genuine mentorships. These realities however, do not reduce the need for mentors; in fact, I would say they increase the need for a supportive professional relationship.
I have been lucky to be both a mentee and mentor and firmly believe both experiences have contributed enormously to my ability to push myself personally and build professional relationships that go beyond the usual boss/employee or seller/customer dynamic. While my experiences unconventional – in that they weren’t focused on a single trade – they were none the less influential. When I was a mentee I had a person to go to with my questions (regardless of their triviality) as well as someone whose own experiences were able to guide mine. Once I moved into the role of mentor I recalled the advice and mannerisms my mentor had shared with me. I worked hard to listen before commenting and to openly consider feedback. The exchanges I had with my mentee were genuinely educational for us both and we remain each other’s champion even as our relationship has become much more collegial.
Many progressive companies have instituted internal mentoring systems or engaged a company like Bizucate to coach and support their employees. However, it is well worth the effort to seek out a mentor relationship. Whether you are just entering into a new industry and need help translating the nuances or if you’ve been at it for a while and want to pass along your lessons and experiences while learning more about what’s fresh here are a few tips on starting down the mentor path:
Where to find a mentor/mentee
I usually suggest looking outside of your immediate work environment. It removes some of the inevitable influences of office politics and allows questions and comments to flow freely without having to worry about looking uninformed or stepping on someone’s toes.
• Check with your alma mater’s alumni office.
• If you’re a member of an association or professional networking group look around your next meeting.
• Colleagues in other offices may have some referrals.
What to look for
There are benefits to finding someone with whom you share a similar viewpoint or background; it may be easier to find yourself at ease with them or directly relate to their experiences. However, you can learn a lot and really expand your professional perspective by seeking out a relationship with someone who may hold different ideals, position or even gender.
• Find someone whose work and reputation you respect.
• Make sure it is someone who communicates openly and clearly.
• Ideally it should be someone who has time to commit at least a year to the mentorship.
How to ask
Keep it simple, keep it courteous. Begin by acknowledging the commitment of time and involvement you’re asking of them and then outline what you hope to gain from and contribute to the mentor experience. Be prepared to present the pros and cons but in most situations I think you’ll find the conversation is an easy one.
How to maintain the relationship
This should be determined according to the availability and need of both people involved. Try to figure out a schedule of regular check-ins to keep you both connected. Other than that let the relationship organically develop; ask questions, seek guidance, share experiences, teach, discuss. The potential is limitless as long and the channels of communication remain open.
So, go forth and find your mentor/mentee. It is one of the best investments you can make in your professional development.