The concept of mentoring is one that lends itself to an immediate stereotype: the seasoned professional, with a hand on a younger colleague’s shoulder, dispensing tidbits of valuable advice as they make their way in the business world. However, in a much more realistic world, mentoring is a valuable resource that benefits everyone, no matter where they are on the corporate ladder. This article will examine the finer points of good mentoring, and how looking at the practice as a form of communication and connection will aid you in your career.
I’m Already Where I Want to Be—Why Do I Need Mentoring?
You’ve achieved your goals. Congratulations! But are you ever truly done growing and learning? Mentors can help with career development, but the concept isn’t solely about financial and position growth, it’s about continually doing better at what you do, and thereby, growing and developing the people around you. Your skill set is already very strong, but be honest in your self-reflections: you very likely have your own weak points, or niche skills that you need or want to hone. This is where a good mentor will come into play. By reaching out to people for personal development, you’ll gain insights into your own field as well as other positions within your business. With these new perspectives, you’ll know what to look for to help grow your company, and possibly new traits to keep in mind when hiring or promoting, whether from within or outside the company.
Are Mentors People Higher Up Than Myself?
Not at all. Mentoring flows from various points. In this presentation by Ruth Gotian, an Assistant Dean for Mentoring and Chief Learning Officer at Weill Cornell Medicine, Dr. Gotian stresses the need to learn from everyone who has insights to offer you, whether they’re directly below you, at your own peer level, or even connections at rival companies. Within a business setting, knowledge doesn’t just grow from a small level at the bottom up to a big level at the top; with an openness to learn, you can absorb valuable information from a wide variety of sources. Dr. Gotian notes two excellent examples from her own mentoring: she learned valuable time management techniques from a friend in law, a field completely different from her own; and she picked up invaluable tips on social media from younger colleagues at a seminar. She openly acknowledges bettering herself by looking outside of her own academic and medical backgrounds.
How Do I Find a Mentor?
Dr. Gotian frames it this way: “never use the M-word.” You’re absolutely encouraged to ask questions, to want to learn more about people, especially if you have mutual information to share and teach each other. But if you explicitly ask someone to be a mentor, it creates a sense of obligation that is off-putting and feels time-consuming.
In one of her examples, Dr. Gotian notes how a casual conversation with a student turned into further dialogue, and a discovery that the student’s leadership skills at the conference, combined with their academic work, made them a valuable candidate for mentoring. As Dr. Gotian learned more about the student’s research, they collaborated to help find the student potential avenues for publication, as well as contributions to Dr. Gotian’s own work. This was all possible through what started as an innocent conversation that very well could have gone nowhere beyond just pleasantries. You don’t want to look at every single professional interaction as a potential mentoring opportunity, but being personal, approachable, and willing to connect with others are valuable tools for growth.
Like any relationship, personal or professional, you want to create a natural dialogue. Approaching someone because you want to get to know them, or because you want to gain insight into their professional lives, should be done in a straightforward manner, with an emphasis on connection, rather than “give-and-take.” A true mentor-mentee relationship needs to grow organically; it can’t be automatically labeled or requested. Any good executive should cultivate connections in a variety of specialties. Therefore, if one potential mentor doesn’t work out, you’ll have other connections who very well might know someone who specializes in the information you’d like to know.
Do I Need a Mentor, or Should I Be a Mentor?
As noted above, this goes both ways. You can absolutely have a mentor and be a mentor at the same time. Nobody is a complete bottle of information. Good leadership means having answers and solutions, but also a willingness to ask for help, guidance, and education. Your mentor can steer you with their own knowledge, experience, and publications, helping make you a much more well-rounded executive. In turn, your own guidance of someone can help illuminate what you already know, and very well give you insight into various threads of your experience that you haven’t thought about or engaged in some time. And in turn, the person you’re mentoring undoubtedly has skills and knowledge from their own personal and professional experiences that they can share with you as well.
Overall, your goal is to connect widely with various people, and a willingness to learn and share will absolutely help you grow in your position. Don’t look at mentoring as a relationship between just two people; look at it as the network it truly is, and consider the various ways information and knowledge rises and falls through work relationships, networking, and business communities.
If you are ready, here’s how to be a professional mentor!