When you start your first job, you’ll have plenty of questions about the real world that college might not have prepared you for. Should you dress up every day, even if your co-workers wear jeans? What email signature should you use? How do you stand out from your colleagues when you’re trying to keep up with all your new responsibilities?
Luckily, you don’t have to figure it all out on your own. A mentor — or two or three — can help you navigate office life, learn how to move up in your industry and weigh future job offers. But there are right ways and wrong ways to identify and work with mentors. Here are the dos and dont’s of mentoring from pros who have been on both sides of the relationship.
DO: Consider a midcareer mentor from within your own network
You’ll get the most out of a mentorship if you’re able to speak with someone in your field who understands the challenges specific to your industry. He or she will also have professional connections you might be able to call upon in the future.
Start by considering former bosses from college internships or part-time jobs, professors who taught classes in your major or older alumni from your alma mater whom you admire. Your potential mentor should be someone you consider successful but who is also reliable, accessible and candid, and who will take the relationship seriously.
“It really comes down to the two parties. Do they click? Is there something there of value that they both see?”
— Paul McDonald, senior executive director, Robert Half
“You want to have somebody who’s not too far advanced in their career compared to you,” says Paul McDonald, senior executive director of global recruiting firm Robert Half. They’re more likely to make time for you and to be aware of emerging trends in the field if they’re between five and 15 years older than you, but a mentor in his or her 40s could be helpful, too.
“It really comes down to the two parties,” McDonald says. “Do they click? Is there something there of value that they both see?”
If you work at a large company, you might also have access to a formal mentoring program, which pairs you with a higher-level colleague who can give you career guidance from within the company. Take advantage of this opportunity to meet colleagues you might not have had the chance to work with, and who can share with you valuable insight into how they were able to thrive in your work environment.
In addition to keeping in touch with a more senior professional in your field, it’s worthwhile to seek out a second mentor who is in his or her second job out of college, called a “step-ahead” mentor, says Ellen Ensher, professor of management at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and coauthor of “Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Proteges Get the Most out of Their Relationships.”
“They’ll be able to empathize with what you’re going through,” she says. “And they’ll have all the cutting-edge knowledge.”
DON’T: Be afraid to meet new mentors at industry events
Joining a new organization or attending a networking event alone can be intimidating, but it can also be hugely rewarding. There’s a trade organization for nearly every industry, from the National Science Teachers Association to the National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association. Attend their monthly meetings or conferences and you’ll get to know other professionals — some who are entry-level like you and others who have risen to the top of the field. You’re more likely to find a potential mentor, and make meaningful new connections in general, if you take an active role in the organization once you join, Ensher says.
“Volunteer on a committee, and then you get partnered with these older, advanced professionals and you start to interact with them one-on-one,” she says. Helping other members organize an event or update the association’s website will give you a chance to see your teammates’ work styles and to recognize a great prospective mentor when you meet him or her.
DO: Decide on specific goals and meeting times
Once you have someone in mind, formally ask him or her to be your mentor. Using the word “mentor” — and not merely asking to speak on the phone every once in a while if you have a work-related question — will make your expectations clear, McDonald says.
“That will help with the specificity and help qualify and quantify what you need from that person,” he says.
It’s important to be as explicit as possible when defining the relationship. Meeting once a month is standard, McDonald says, either in person or over the phone. You can schedule your conversation while you’re both commuting to work in the morning or on your lunch hour, as long as it’s at least a half-hour block of time when you know you won’t be distracted.
Know what your goals are, too. Tell your prospective mentor that you’re particularly interested in learning how to communicate effectively with your colleagues, manage your time or build your confidence so you can negotiate a raise. Come to each conversation prepared with questions and anecdotes from work so you make the most of the time your mentor has carved out for you. The more specific you are, the more useful and targeted the answers you’ll get.
Take care to act professionally, though, and to focus on how you want to grow — not on how frustrated you are with a boss or colleague.
“It’s not a time to call out people as bad managers or bad employees,” McDonald says.
DON’T: Immediately ask for a job
Try not to view your mentor as merely a potential connection for a future job. Think of him or her as someone who will help you become the best current employee you can be so that you’re prepared to land an even better position next time you’re on the job hunt.
If you’re currently looking for a job, you can bounce ideas off your mentor or ask for advice on how to frame your skills. Your mentor might even be more likely to suggest positions you should apply for if you’re professional, confident and inquisitive than if you hand over your resume or ask explicitly for a good word at their company.
“You have to feel the vibe,” Ensher says. “And a lot of times, if you’re asking provocative, interesting questions, the mentor will offer that up.”
One of the best ways to make sure you’re a good mentee is to mentor others, Ensher says. You can work with current students at your alma mater — in person or virtually — or high school students through a local nonprofit. You’ll have a greater understanding of how important it is to make the best use of a mentor’s time when you’re on the other side. You’ll also gain confidence in your growing workplace knowledge, and maybe you’ll be surprised by how much you already know when you advise others.
“You have to give them feedback, you have to provide them with coaching, you have to kind of explain your thought process,” she says. “When you teach someone else, you become better at what you’re doing.”
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