I owe much of my personal and professional success to mentors. Shout out to John Frandsen, Gay Hendricks, and John Martone, my colleagues at IBM who taught me to crisp up my writing, walk with purpose, and dress appropriately!
Mentors have played a pivotal role in so many of our lives. There’s overwhelming amounts of research, like this study from the University of South Florida, about the value of mentors at work and how the relationship yields results including greater compensation, greater salary growth, and more promotions. Other studies, like this one from The Academy of Management Review, have found that people with mentors gain more clarity about their unique talents and contributions at work as well as their personal values, strengths, and weaknesses.
Despite these kinds of results, so few of us invest time in building relationships with mentors or coaches. Why? Well, because it can be hard. When looking for advice, we most often go to the most convenient sources, but not necessarily the right ones. Too often people haven’t developed their own networks, so they ask for advice from the person right in front of them. Perhaps it’s their boss, or colleagues at their company. Often it’s their spouses, parents, or friends. Is this really the best way to find a mentor? Friends are great supporters, but do they really know how you can best leverage your skill set to advance in your changing industry—an industry that may be very different from theirs? Your mother might be your biggest fan, but does she really know how much you are worth in the marketplace?
And mentors at work? The way mentoring is approached inside companies is antiquated. Most often, mentoring takes place infrequently, perhaps once or twice a year, and at specified times, such as during a performance review. That’s a mistake—most people don’t feel receptive and open at a time when economics are at stake. It’s best to discuss development and future goals in a different zone, when people are thinking about the future as opposed to being judged for the past.
We can’t fault companies for doing a bad job at finding mentors for employees. It’s hard to cultivate at under-resourced, fast-paced startups. And as bigger companies are experiencing reduced employee tenure and company longevity, there’s no longer an opportunity to receive years of coaching from one boss. Additionally, middle management has been slashed, meaning there are fewer folks with enough bandwidth to help, and competition is fierce, and in some cases, people worry about training their own replacement.
We live in a different time, one I call The Age of Entrepreneurship. Today, it’s not up to the company to provide mentoring or “take care” of employees in the same parental way that defined the past. The onus of personal and professional development is on the individual. That’s why I believe, in the future, mentoring relationships will not develop in the office; they will come from a network culled from a variety of areas. That’s the better approach: you gain access to the best and brightest minds that have the most experience specifically relevant to you and your dreams. This external board of advisers can offer insight, direction, and introductions. It’s also better to have several mentors as opposed to just one, because no mentor will be correct on what you should do 100% of the time.
So, how do you find your team of mentors? I’ve included some ideas below.
- Actively search for the best mentors in your industry.
Who does your current job—or the job you want—well? Read industry publications and websites and blogs to identify the best people in your field. Search for them online. Find them on LinkedIn. Connect with them on a mentoring matching service. What is their magic? Create a database of who they are, what they’ve accomplished, and what you can learn from them.
- Seek advice from the best people.
People love to mentor, help, and coach. Ask your mentors what success looks like to them. Ask them what they think has made them successful. Ask them to share their story.
- Accept whatever help is available from your company and solicit help from outside your company.
I felt so strongly about the need for people to be able to access mentors that I co-founded a company called Everwise, which uses data and software and people to help match mentors and protégés.
- Bring value to the network.
Ask what you can do to help your mentors. You may have assets they need. Don’t be a pest, but do send a relevant article or a post they might find interesting, or promote their work to your network. Social media tools make this easier than ever.