Why it’s so important to know what you want from your mentor

I was sitting in a women’s lunch recently where the question was asked: “What do you think is the key barrier to your professional development?”

Again and again, participants would answer with something like: “I just really need a mentor. A successful woman that can, well, mentor me to meet my career goals.”

Mentor? What for?

One of the most valuable lessons I have learnt in my short career is the importance of establishing the purpose behind everything you do. The purpose can also be seen as the problem you are trying to solve. It is very easy to jump straight to prescribing a solution – this was one of my frequent pitfalls early in my career. If you have not properly diagnosed the problem, however, your solution may not be properly targeted, and therefore ineffective. Or worse, you may find yourself with no way to actually measure whether you are making progress towards achieving your goal.

The question posed at the lunch sought women’s views of the problem, and the eager participants instead offered a solution. Mentoring in particular is often seen (by budding mentees) as the silver bullet for any professional shortcoming. It’s a nice sounding option, because it gives the impression that you can just sit down and be fed answers without expending any real effort.

There can certainly be real benefits gained from a mentoring relationship, but the reason for establishing it should be clearly understood. What problem would the relationship aim to solve? If the arrangement is not targeted to your specific need, it’s unlikely to be effective.

So the first step is identifying your “problem”. Only once you have established the problem that you would like to address, should you consider the potential solutions. There may be skills or insights you could develop through your own reading, training courses, or yes, even some kind of mentoring.

If you decide that mentoring is the right avenue for you to explore, carefully consider the type of person that is best placed to help you address your specific need.

Let me offer some obvious but regularly overlooked examples:

  • If there is a specific skill you would like to develop, your mentor should be someone proficient in that skill. This is just as important for soft skills as it is for more technical skills.
  • If you want support in developing a career plan, they may be someone who has achieved something that you aspire to. Or maybe they are someone who has created opportunities through an unconventional career path to achieve their goals.

Other important considerations:

  • Do they have to be female? In a sector where female leaders are severely under-represented, a male may be best placed to share their experiences and provide insights.
  • Do they have to be someone senior (in age or professional hierarchy)? If they have the skills or experience that you’re seeking to learn from, then seniority may be irrelevant.
  • Do they even have to be a formal “mentor”? You may be able to gain the insights you need over lunch, or by sitting with a colleague as they perform certain tasks. A formal, ongoing relationship may be overkill.

Equally, a sponsor – someone who understands your value proposition and can advocate for you to important stakeholders – may be the best relationship to help you achieve your goals. While a sponsor may have some of the same qualities that you’re seeking in a mentor, the purpose for the relationship is likely to be different.

Whatever you decide, make sure the purpose is the guiding factor for all your decisions. That way, your solution is much more likely to help you achieve your professional goals.

Women in Energy is a not-for-profit organisation seeking to enable women to advance their careers in the energy sector, by delivering education, training, advocacy and networking.

Jenna Polson

Jenna is an energy policy professional at ERM Power Limited, an Australian energy company that operates electricity generation, retail and metering businesses.As Manager, Regulatory Affairs, she represents the views of her organisation and the retail sector generally to governments, regulator and policy makers.

Jenna has previously worked at Simply Energy, and Green Energy Markets. She is passionate about professional and personal development, and supporting others to achieve their goals.  Jenna holds a Bachelor of Science (Atmospheric and Oceanic) and is currently undertaking post-graduate studies in Strategic Communications.


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