Few executives will tell you they achieved their success alone.
A strong team can help position a leader to grow, but even more important is having someone higher up the corporate food chain that can provide guidance, advice and even a boost in the right direction when necessary.
For as long as there has been commerce, less experienced entrepreneurs have sought counsel, guidance and advice from more established people in their fields. Today, the relationship between a mentor and protege has become more critical than ever: not only as part of a professional’s development within one’s current company but also or externally as they pursue personal development.
What is the Relation Between a Mentor and a Protege?
The relationship you build with a mentor is a nuanced one. Not just any professor or supervisor will fit the bill. But not every industry leader is going to have the time, energy or desire to mentor you on your journey to success. Never force this relationship. Instead, let your professional chemistry with the people you admire be your guide. Does the founder of your company always have time to chat with you no matter how busy she may be? Does a former professor check in from time to time to take an interest in your career growth? These people may be likely candidates on your search for a mentor.
One note of caution: if you do connect with a mentor from within your organization, think carefully about how your relationship will appear to others around you. If you leapfrog over the five layers of management between yourself and the CEO to create a meaningful mentorship, you may find yourself with several targets on your back. Your relationship with the CEO could make your direct supervisors feel threatened and the results could become uncomfortable.
What Are You Offering Your Mentor?
While it may seem like you’re getting the better end of the deal, remember that your relationship with your mentor is a two-way street. Always keep in mind what you can do to be useful to your mentor.
For example, if your mentor is a former professor, she may now be fully embedded in the world of academia and may no longer be actively working in your industry. She may find your real, on the ground perspective illuminating and may see you as a way to keep tabs on industry trends. Come to your meetings prepared with some recent articles, perhaps, that you think would be of interest to her or that align with some of her research.
If your mentor is an industry leader that you’ve been lucky enough to connect with, be sure to come to your discussions ready to discuss observations about your field that will be of interest to him. One helpful strategy is to prepare thoughtful and original questions for him that show you’ve been wrestling with key issues in your field while engaging him in creative problem solving.
No matter who your mentor is, it’s likely that he or she enjoys feeling valuable to someone younger or less established in his or her given industry. Always express gratitude for your mentor’s time, guidance or any contacts he might provide. If your mentor connects you with someone he thinks will be of value to you, be sure to follow up and make a strong impression. Even if you think the connection will not be useful, you’re in it to show respect for your mentor and that alone may be enough. By the same token, be careful to note when you’re asking too much: monitor how much time you’re coopting and how often you’re asking your mentor to dig into his network to provide a contact for you. Choose your opportunities wisely.
You can have more than one mentor.
Searching for a mentor can be a lot like dating: you’ll have missed connections, bad chemistry and misunderstandings along the way to finding The One. But one major difference between finding a mentor and dating is that you don’t need to settle for one mentor alone. Plenty of business leaders connect with a variety of mentors who are able to give diverse insight into multiple aspects of their respective industries.
Also note that your mentor does not need to be a titan of industry to be useful. Many people with strong career ambitions find that a peer mentor can be particularly helpful. Having a low-pressure environment in which you can bounce ideas off of a similarly-situated industry peer can lead to equally important insight as a meeting with a corporate executive.
Learn from the best
You may find that the most useful information about your mentor does not come from what he says but rather what he does. Watch how he interacts with his associates and how he delivers feedback or vital information to him. Take note of how he prepares for major events and commitments. Observe how he prioritizes his busy work schedule.
If you mostly tend to meet with your mentor one-on-one, you may find it helpful to request that you shadow him for a day, if appropriate. Learning how the best of the best complete their day-to-day tasks can provide meaningful insight as you model yourself and your future career.
Ready to work with a mentor?