Many of us had the benefit of a mentor or two growing up. Maybe it was an older sibling or neighborhood whiz kid, or even an athletic coach or civic leader. Regardless of who our mentor was, the relationship shed new light on everything from day-to-day living to how to answer the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Mentoring isn’t relegated to childhood, the teen years, or college life. In fact, having a mentor becomes critical for young professionals launching their careers or venturing into the world of entrepreneurship. Being able to turn to someone else for advice, guidance, and real-world answers presents a host of benefits.
One Kabbage study found that 92% of small business owners say mentors directly impact their business’s growth and survival. This shouldn’t be surprising when you consider that mentors provide vital doses of patience and perspective whether the chips are up or down. In addition, they can facilitate important business connections and smooth passage into networking organizations. Heck, they can even become lifelong friends.
If you think mentors are only important for budding founders, think again. SAP’s research showed tremendous advantages for employees who found mentors. Not only did young professionals improve their likelihood of promotions and higher salaries, but they felt more engaged with their work. Imagine how good it would feel to end each day knowing you were one step closer to being the best you, instead of just striving to make it through another 24 hours in a dead-end job.
Finding a mentor isn’t a task to be taken lightly. Expect to put skin in the game. You’ll want to look for a person whose talents and experiences complement your own, rather than duplicating your current skill sets. At the same time, your mentor needs to be committed to the process of sharing thoughts and modeling smart choices. Not surprisingly, some individuals simply aren’t cut out for these types of relationships. That’s OK. With some persistence, you will eventually find a perfect mentor fit.
When you do establish a mentoring connection with someone, follow these strategies to bolster your relationship with that person, thus ensuring the best possible outcomes for both of you.
1. Lay out expectations in writing.
Mentoring is not synonymous with meandering. At the onset of your mentorship arrangement, set aside time to talk about what each of you want to get out of and give to the experience. This will help the process proceed smoothly and stay on course. Brett Caine, CEO of Urban Airship, says mentor relationships thrive from direction. He observes, “Mentor relationships must be tended to and are constantly evolving. Those experiences and discussions culminate in a stronger bond to navigate more complex life or business discussions in the future.”
Even if you’re an employee at a company with a robust mentorship program, you should still discuss parameters. Don’t assume that your mentor will naturally know what you want or need. Be transparent and honest, even if it feels awkward at first. For instance, consider writing down key objectives you’d like to meet after six months. Then, figure out a time frame to talk that works for your mentor. Set an agenda for each meeting, and commit to a plan of action based on each conversation. Every few months, initiate a retrospective to make sure you’re still on track or move the goalposts to adjust your plan.
2. Listen without prejudice or knee-jerk reactions.
You and your mentor don’t share the same background or brain. As a result, you’re not always going to agree with everything your mentor recommends — how or whether you use your mentor’s advice is up to you. So accept what you hear and reflect on it in private. Daniel Pigg, instructor and director of the Business Engagement Center at Indiana State University, recommends broad-mindedness. “A resilient relationship with your mentor could be the difference between a stalled business and a growing one,” Pigg explains. “Be willing to absorb knowledge that a mentor can share without judgment or push-back — even if hearing it makes you pause.”
What happens if your gut tells you your mentor’s incorrect on a point? You might want to do as Erin Walter did and trust your instincts without blaming your mentor. After Walter, the CEO of Chicago marketing agency Nuphoriq, had several run-ins with a cocky employee, her mentor told her to let the worker go. She went the other direction — becoming a mentor to the employee and ultimately making him a bigger part of the team. Yet Walter she never lost faith in her mentor or discounted his counsel. She simply listened to his advice and made the decision that felt right to her given all of the information she had.
3. Shower your mentor with gratitude.
What never goes out of style? A genuine thank you. Whether it’s in the form of a handwritten note (which is often unexpected and powerful) or a heartfelt gesture, an expression of thanks shows your mentor you’re grateful for his or her time and energy. Sadly, many people have forgotten how to say thanks. A study by researchers from the University of Chicago found that thank-you note senders greatly underestimated the positive impact their words had on receivers. Perhaps that’s why the art of mailing cards has gone by the wayside, although you should bring it back.
After every mentor discussion, make a point of popping a notecard in the mail. Later in your mentoring relationship, you can send a quick text if that seems more appropriate. But be sure to still send a handwritten note occasionally. Even if your mentoring partnership stops, remember to keep your mentor informed of your progress — and note how he or she helped you get there. You’ll be surprised at how sending flowers on a mentor’s birthday or showing other signs of appreciation and support will pay off.
Feeling a little mentor-less at the moment? It’s a temporary state. Go out and find the right individual to help you see the world differently and move your career or new business forward.