A beginner’s guide to mentoring: what is a mentor, who are they for, and how do I get one?

Guide to mentoring

Having the right mentor can be the difference between success and failure – it’s as simple as that. If mentors are so important, why do so few people have them? What’s their purpose? And, if you need one, where do you start?

Wait a second… what is a mentor?

Before diving into the how and the why, let’s take a step back and answer “the what”. A mentor is often thought of as a successful person within an organisation, who has “been there and done that”. And they could be. But it’s much simpler than that.

Quite frankly, a mentor is anybody who draws upon their own experiences to help guide you towards a goal.

The key parts of that description are the mentor’s ‘own experiences’, and your ‘goal’. This perfectly describes the partnership between a mentor and a mentee, and is also a great starting place when trying to describe the purpose of a mentor. You need to be clear about what it is you’re looking for to find someone who can help you find it.

Often the goal is a blanket “career progression”, but that needn’t be the case.

Maybe you’ve moved industries or departments, and you want help transitioning. Maybe you have a difficult boss, or a difficult employee, and you want some impartial perspective. Or maybe you do indeed want a promotion. In all instances, it makes sense to find someone who has experienced this for themselves, and ask for their help.

Okay, I get it – mentors sound great. How do I find one?

Woah, slow down there, buddy. Before you go rushing off in search of your new mentor, make sure you’ve done your homework. By that I mean truly understand what it is you want help with and why. Mentors are – on the whole – pretty nice people who are involved in mentoring because they care about helping and developing others. By their very nature, they’ll be happy to give up some of their most precious commodity – time – for you.

However, they’ll be more receptive to you as a new mentee if you present them with a plan of what you’re looking to achieve.

Once you have that in mind, you’re ready to find your match. Unfortunately, there’s no Match.com for mentoring… although this is in the future development plans for Career Dad. For now, the best way of finding a mentor is to use your network. Speak with your boss. Speak to colleagues. Speak with friends. If you’re able to articulate what you want help with, the chances are there’s someone who knows someone who can help.

If that’s not the case, then a resource such as LinkedIn can be a true friend. Find people who are doing what you want to be doing, or who’ve experienced what you want to experience. If they’re active on LinkedIn (e.g. they post articles, write comments, engage with the community) then even better. Read what they’re writing, engage with them, and start to build up a rapport.

I think I’ve found someone… what do I do now?

This is the most straightforward bit, yet it can often be the most difficult. You contact them.

It’s no big secret. You introduce yourself (or ask your contacts to make the introduction), say who you are, what you’re looking for from mentoring and why you’d like that mentor to be them.

Once you’ve made that introduction, and they’ve hopefully agreed, it’s time for the meet. The first meeting can often feel slightly strange or awkward – particularly if this is your first mentor experience. That’s perfectly normal.

The most important thing at this stage is that you and your new potential mentor have a connection. You get on. There’s some rapport. 

Some people disagree with this and say the most important thing is having a mentor who can help you, regardless of whether there’s rapport. However, how are you going to get the most out of the experience if you feel that you can’t express yourself openly? But ultimately, it’s whatever works for you.

What should I expect from that first session?

This is difficult to answer, as every mentor will take a different approach. However, when I work with a new mentee I use the first session to set the foundations for the relationship. I make sure I understand their goals; I explain the rough process I like to follow and make sure that resonates with them; and also, I give them an out. 

If for whatever reason they feel that I can’t help them or they simply don’t like me, that’s fine. I’d rather we catch that early.

Thankfully, though, no-one has taken me up on that offer yet!

Congratulations: You’re mentor-ready

There you have it: you’re now fully clued up on what a mentor is, what they do, why you should have one and how to go about getting one.

This is the first piece in Career Dad’s new MentorMe series. Other pieces in this series will include: how to develop a mentoring plan and identify your goals; how many mentors should you have; and how to become a mentor yourself.

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