I’ve been fortunate to have several opportunities for professional development in the past few years, both within and outside of my workplace. Among the webinars, cohorts, workshops and trainings I’ve pursued, working with a mentor has been the most beneficial.
First, I have to say that I can’t believe mentorships aren’t more common. I know people who have had similarly positive transformative experiences with personal and professional mentors, but it feels like an arrangement that remains massively underutilized on the whole.
I wish I had reached out to my mentor years ago. Meeting with her over the past year and a half has helped me understand my current work and has given me a sense of how I want to plot my overall career trajectory. She has connected me to other nonprofit professionals and encouraged me to join a community organization’s board of directors. In the Super Mario Bros. game that is my career, she has been the magic flower that allows me to shoot fireballs at my professional roadblocks so I can advance to the next level.
If you’ve ever thought about working with a mentor or approaching someone to provide some professional guidance, I can’t recommend it enough. Here are a few thoughts about getting started:
Keep your eyes peeled
Mentors don’t grow on trees, but finding and connecting with someone who can act as a mentor can be relatively easy. Sure, there’s some luck involved, but I believe it has more to do with keeping your eyes open for the right opportunity. In my case, I had a chance to work with my mentor on a short term project for my job. When that was over, I wrote and asked if we could meet so I could ask for some pointers about media relations. We met, had a great conversation, and I asked if we could connect again sometime. Since then, we’ve continued to meet regularly and our check-ins are a bright spot in my month. None of this would have been possible if I hadn’t taken that first step to reach out and ask for a little help.
Look for the experience you want, not the title
There’s no formula for what makes a great mentor—they come in all forms and from all fields. Rather than looking for someone who has the job you want to have ten years from now, think about who has the experience you want to gain during those ten years. This could be someone within your own line of work, or not. This article from Forbes (and this weird stock photo gallery) has some tips for approaching a mentor. Chances are the executive director of the organization you want to work for won’t have capacity to act as your mentor. However, there may be someone else at that organization who has a little more room for this kind of thing. They may even see it as an opportunity to grow themselves, too. Try to find that person.
Ask for specific help
Mentoring has a branding problem. It sounds big: a big investment of time and energy, and a big role to fill. None of this needs to be true of the mentorship experience, but I believe this perception stands in the way of everyone either being a mentor or a protege. Until the Oxford English Dictionary accepts my submission of the word “friendtor,” we need to find another way to soften the ask so it doesn’t feel overwhelming. I suggest asking for help or guidance about a specific issue or topic as a starting point. If it’s a good fit and you both want to keep meeting, that’s great! If not, neither of you are committed to anything more. You can walk away on good terms.
I’m hopeful some of you reading this will start thinking about approaching a mentor (or friendtor) to give your career a boost. Likewise, if someone asks you to be their mentor, do it! You may be the special power up that person needs to reach the next level.