Those who have mentors are twice as likely to be promoted as those who don’t, says Ellen Fagenson Eland, professor at George Mason University and 2003 Winner of the Mentoring Best Practices Award. So start taking the mentoring process very seriously — it should be a cornerstone of your overall career strategy. Here’s a plan to get you started:
Step 1: Identify a potential mentor. This person can be any age, but the most effective mentor is someone approximately five years ahead of you in your career. A person at this level will know how to navigate your organization at the spot you’re in, and the person will remember what it is like to be where you are. This person should be someone you admire and someone who has good communication skills.
Step 2: Have good questions. Would-be mentors are most receptive to people who ask good questions. What makes a good question? It should reveal that you are both directed and driven. But the question should also demonstrate that you understand the mentor’s expertise and you can use it well. So, a question like, “What should I do with my life?” would be out.
Step 3: Don’t expect miracles. A mentor is not going to rescue your whole career, even if she can. People want to mentor a rising star, so look like you’re on track when you ask for help. Ask, “What skills should I develop to earn an education policy analyst job with a Senator?” rather than, “Can you get me a job with a Senator?” even if the mentor is Caroline Kennedy.
Step 4: Be a good listener. This person is not your therapist. You ask a question, and then listen. If the mentor needs to know more, he’ll ask. Do not tell your life story. It is not interesting. If it were, you’d be writing a book or doing standup, right? If you find yourself talking more than the mentor, then get a therapist before you scare your mentor away.
Step 5: Prove you’re serious. You can demonstrate that you’re hungry for counsel by implementing the advice your mentor gave, showing the result, and then going back for more. So, if your mentor suggests you get on project X, get yourself there, do a good job, and report back to your mentor that you are grateful for the advice because you were able to learn a lot and shine. Your mentor will be much more willing to give you her time and energy after you’ve proven yourself to be a quick and eager study.
Step 6: Always be on the lookout. One is not enough. Each person needs a few mentors, because no mentor lasts forever, and each has a different expertise. Two of my best mentors were very different from each other. One helped me to fit in with the guys so that I could succeed at a company where I was the only woman in management. Another mentor helped me to keep my sanity and my focus when balancing work and children seemed totally impossible.
Step 7: Give back. The best way to learn how to rope in a mentor is to be a mentor yourself. You’ll find out first hand what makes a protégée annoying, which will, in turn, make you a less annoying protégée. You’ll also discover why helping someone else grow is so rewarding, which will give you the courage to ask people to help you.