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A Complete User Guide to Your Mentor

As someone who helps run a mentorship program (for the HRPA’s Toronto Chapter), I know that what is top of mind for many professionals (particularly those in the early stages of their careers), is finding a great mentor.

The reality that we have all faced at some point in our careers is that classroom learning can only get you so far. Once we claw our way into the ‘real world’ of work, organizational idiosyncrasies, office politics, and the frequent ambiguity involved in much of our work can be disconcerting. Used correctly, mentorship can be of significant help in contextualizing these experiences and learning from them. Hence the drive to find that great mentor who will illuminate areas that are grey to us, share their knowledge, and perhaps their network too.

I understand this drive, and I see it as an intelligent response to both the intrinsic urge to improve ourselves, and as a reasoned approach to address a hyper-competitive job market, where young professionals need to explore every strategy to distinguish themselves as top performers and candidates. But the significant focus given to finding a great mentor ignores the other part of the equation. If you’re lucky enough to find a mentor, what happens then? The heavy focus on locking someone into that mentor role does little to highlight the significant power that protégés have to maximize the value and impact of mentorship, whether it’s coming from a formally recognized mentor, or from the many experienced people that surround us in our workplaces and lives. That is, professionals lucky enough to find a mentor or mentors very often fail to fully exploit the potential value of the relationship they find themselves in. Even the best mentor won’t be much help if you don’t know how to use them.

So I would like to offer protégés a few key tips to ensure that once they’ve found that mentor, whether it be at work, at home, or through their professional association or network, that they use their time with that person to its full potential.

Have a plan

You’ve been looking for a mentor, and you’ve found one. Nailed it, right? Uh, no. This is actually where your real work begins. You are the one seeking something (knowledge, advice, contacts), which means that you are the one who must build the ‘lesson plan’. This is not school, where you listen to a lecturer who sends out the syllabus. You need to articulate your goals and work with your mentor to leverage their experience to move you towards those goals. Think of it like a personal trainer; you can tell her that you want to be able to bench press 100 lbs, and she can use her knowledge and experience to help you reach that goal, but it’s always going to be you doing the heavy lifting. Some examples of good goals might be ‘learn more about the insurance industry/total rewards/people management; address my time management skills/interview skills; explore what my next career step should be; gain career management advice’.

Be proactive

Someone has agreed to share their time and knowledge with you. That is great! Treat them like the single attendee at a special event. That means that you should show them consideration in scheduling any time you spend together. Take the lead in suggesting times and be willing to compromise on where and when you meet.

Ask good questions

Put in some thought ahead of any meetings you have with your mentor. Do not show up expecting him or her to know what to say to support and guide you. Bring questions, work dilemmas, case studies, career challenges, interesting articles or ideas. Bring something.

Be open-minded

No matter what stage of our careers we find ourselves in, we all have some blind spots; things we don’t know that we don’t know. That’s why you need to be open to what you might learn from a mentor. Yes, I said you should have a plan (and you should), but the best advice I can give you is to remain flexible. Accept that your mentor may have things to teach you that you do not know you need to learn. Listen to what they have to say. Reflect upon it.

Request feedback

It seems obvious that those of us who seek out a mentor want feedback about what we are doing wrong, and what we could do better. But that may not be as clear to your mentor as you assume. If you’re truly seeking feedback from your mentor (about how you present professionally, on your resume, or with regards to your communications skills or interview performance etc.), you should explicitly ask for it. Let them know that you want their opinion, and that you are comfortable with constructive criticism. Give them permission to provide this valuable information to you, and then discuss an action plan to address any areas of development, and how you can best exploit your strengths.

Mentorship offers the opportunity to leverage someone else’s experience to augment your own professional knowledge – but that’s only if it used correctly! Protégés can maximize the value of mentorship if they recognize that they have significant influence over the quality and results of the relationship with their mentor. Adopting a strategy to optimize mentorship outcomes is worthy of as much attention as the search for a great mentor is.

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