On the first day of 2017 I shared a quote that says “If you’re lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down”.
I want to build on that idea of helping others, particularly women looking to go further in their careers, by sharing some advice on finding, fostering and sustaining a mentor.
Some of the most important people in my professional career have been my mentors. And some of the most rewarding relationships I have had are with people I have been fortunate enough to have mentored. So I’m an advocate for the benefits of mentoring – whether through formal or informal programs.
Yet I have found there are a couple of pitfalls people make when approaching someone to be a mentor – so let’s talk about what not to do first.
We have all been at professional events where there are people we hope to meet and learn from, and possibly people who would also like to meet us.
It is often a little awkward to make an approach to someone you don’t know so I am always very appreciative when someone I have not met introduces themselves (thank you in advance for doing so at the next event we are at together!).
Yet it can also be quite a surprise when someone you do not know introduces themselves and before you have barely managed to say hello, they come right out and ask whether you will be their mentor.
Similarly, if you receive an email from someone you don’t know wanting to set up a mentoring meeting each month. It can feel a little like going on a date and being asked whether you would like to buy a house together before you have even eaten your meal.
Emotional intelligence is essential when trying to find the right mentor for you. While confidence and earnestness are always fabulous, from my experience there are more effective ways to approach a potential mentor.
Finding the right mentor is certainly not as simple as finding someone who is a good match on paper and seeking them out.
You are not applying for a job: you are actually looking to make a connection that goes well beyond your career history. And you are asking a potential mentor to make a commitment to spend time with you, over an extended period. So start out slowly and let the relationship build naturally.
In any successful mentoring arrangement there needs to be a genuine and authentic connection which will motivate both the mentor and mentee to put effort and commitment into the relationship.
And that is what it becomes – a relationship (some that last entire careers) – where mentors genuinely care about helping and developing their mentee. And likewise, mentees call upon their mentors to assist them in some of the most significant decisions in their careers.
I have mentors who have been part of my professional career for decades and we have never used the term ‘mentor’ or ‘mentee’ to describe our relationship. That is clearly what it is and we both know that to be the case, but those initial coffee meetings were followed up, generally by me as the mentee since the onus is on the person seeking to be mentored, initially at any rate, to do the necessary work to help the relationship flourish.
And in return for the invaluable ways my mentor assisted me in those early days, I would try and add value to the professional life of my mentor whether through sharing articles they might be interested in or making introductions of my own that may benefit them. A mentor needs to feel the relationship is a two-way street to truly work.
The best relationships I have had when I am the mentor is where the person I am mentoring is really focused on what they want to get out of the time we spend together, they prepare well for when we chat about questions they may have or issues they are confronting.
And outside of formal conversations, they stay in touch by sending me things that I may find helpful, suggest events for me to attend and in many ways ends up create a reverse-mentoring relationship. In that way, we are both getting something from the connection making it more natural and more likely to continue over the long term.
So next time you are thinking about approaching someone to be your mentor, have a think about why it is you want to develop a relationship with that person as opposed to any other person. And then invite them to an event they might be interested in, or help introduce them to someone they have indicated they might benefit from knowing.
Alternatively, get in touch with them to explain specifically why you might like to meet with them – i.e. why them and not someone else you might have approached. Be specific, help them get to know you and your motivations to make the most of that initial meeting.
Finally, not all initial meetings with a potential mentor will lead to a long-term mentoring relationship. I have found it is not one of those things that can be forced. You either click or you don’t and that is not the fault of either you or the person you have approached. But don’t let it dishearten you.
Keep forming natural relationships at events, keep extending your network and you will find that those people whose opinion you value and who have helped you at those important decision points in your career will be there for you to call upon when you most need them.
Dr Kirstin Ferguson is a professional company director and sits on a range of corporate boards as well as the board of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Layne Beachley’s Aim for the Stars Foundation. Ferguson has a PhD in leadership and governance, and in 2014 was named one of 100 Australia’s Women of Influence. You can connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.
This article was originally published on Women’s Agenda.