Of course a good education and talent are keys to building a successful career, but for most people, school is over and the parameters of their talent were set on the day they were born. So what can you do now to get ahead? Get a mentor. In fact, get a stable of mentors for guidance on multiple aspects of your career.
“Executives who have had mentors have earned more money at a younger age,” writes Gerard Roche, senior chairman at the recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles. Additionally, his research shows “those who have had mentors are happier with their career progress and derive greater pleasure from their work.” The majority of executives had mentors in their first five years of their career.
But finding a mentor is not easy. For a lucky few, mentors can be found through a privileged network of relatives, family friends or your parents' business associates. For everyone else, the search requires patience, a clear focus and the self-confidence to be a nudge. “Not everyone can depend on nepotism,” says Alisyn Camerota, New York-based correspondent for Fox News. “I got where I am by turning reluctant people into active mentors.”
The easiest way to create allies is to build a reputation as an overachiever. That's what Camerota did during an internship early on in her career at a Washington, D.C. —based news bureau. After earning the respect of her boss throughout the summer, she came to rely on her for advice and support. Eventually Camerota felt empowered enough to walk into her office and say, “My internship ends in a week and I don’t have a job. Can I have all your contacts?” She said yes. Camerota copied the whole Rolodex onto a legal pad by hand and cold called the contacts until someone agreed to interview her. Those calls later led to a full-time job.
Mentors aren't just important for those starting out. They're essential to rising through the ranks, too. “Obtaining a mentor is an important career development experience for individuals. Research indicates that mentored individuals perform better on the job, advance more rapidly within the organization (i.e., get promoted more quickly and earn higher salaries), and report more job and career satisfaction,” says Lillian Eby, professor of applied psychology at the University of Georgia.
As Camerota's career progressed, she realized her main goal was to be a broadcast journalist. More specifically, she wanted to be in front of the camera. But for two years, she was stuck behind the scenes for America’s Most Wanted. That changed when Lance Heflin, the shows executive producer, became her mentor.
Camerota’s tactic of working hard and asking specific questions made Heflin aware that she was coach-able and focused on her career, attributes that attract the best sort of mentor. So by the time Camerota asked Heflin to help her get on-camera, he told her that if she was willing to do the work, he would help.
Camerota spent the next six months making terrible tapes. Heflin’s coaching started with her appearance: “Do not wear green ever again. Do you ever see people wearing green on TV?” Then he moved to more nuanced tips: “Treat the camera like it’s your friend,” he told her. And he showed her a tape from a broadcaster he liked, walking through a house as he talked to the camera, making the audience feel like they were right there with him.
The duo went through countless such show and tell sessions. And every now and then, Heflin would say, “Stop. Rewind.” And he’d go back to where Camerota smiled at someone or looked at the camera and raised an eyebrow. “That’s where you threw a nickel through the screen,” Which was his way of saying, “Something came alive here.” You can’t ask for advice like that. You have to inspire it.
Camerota’s hard work and raw talent earned her an outstanding mentor who devoted a large amount of time and energy to showing her how to become a television reporter. Keep your eyes open for someone who loves to help people grow.
There are more of those people than you’d think and they may need you, too. “Both mentors and protégés report benefiting from mentoring relationships,” writes Eby. Make your move now. Test the waters with a few people who seem like they might be good mentors. Ask specific questions, and heed the advice. You might find you get more than you asked for.