It’s not uncommon to hear business leaders name their mentors as an integral part of their success. One of the world’s most recognised entrepreneurial successes, Sir Richard Branson, has on many occasions attributed the success of Virgin Atlantic to his business mentor, Sir Freddie Laker. And US President Barack Obama has referred to Frank Marshall Davis, introduced to him at a young age by his grandfather, as a key influence.
So it probably goes without saying that a mentor – defined as a wise or trusted adviser – can have a considerable impact on your career path and the level of success you achieve. But how exactly do you find a mentor and ensure that they’re the right person for you?
An individual approach
People often find mentors informally through friends and family, colleagues or superiors. But if you haven’t already found someone who you trust and admire, then you can begin your own search.
Through research and networking you can find someone to be your mentor. However, there is more to finding a mentor than simply strolling up to your industry idol at an event and asking them to give up their time for you.
“You can’t just go up to someone. You need to build relationships,” says the founder of Women’s Network Australia, Lynette Palmen AM. “If you approach people who don’t have the time, without building a relationship first, most of the time the answer will be no.”
According to Kim McGuinness, the managing director of Network Central and Centrum Events, it is also important to understand your career direction before considering who should be your mentor.
“Be targeted in your approach and take the time to understand where you are going [in your career] so that you can be strategic about what kind of person should mentor you,” she says. “Take time to research possible mentors and then make a priority list.”
Determining who ends up on that list, according to McGuinness, involves a combination of observation and referral, as well as consideration of position and personality.
“Look for someone who believes in you and what you are trying to achieve,” she says. “You can get a sense of a person’s character when meeting them, so choose someone who has a character that is compatible with yours but has more experience than you.”
And that someone can be male or female, from any industry.
While industry and gender doesn’t matter, Palmen says many women tend to be attracted to female mentors who reflect where they’re at in their life, such as those juggling children with work.
For McGuinness, in some circumstances it can be valuable for women to have a male mentor.
“Many of the senior roles women are aiming for are currently held by men. Having an understanding of the type of role we are heading towards gives us valuable information that can help land and manage the role,” she says.
“Men also have a different perspective than women and sometimes it makes perfect sense to look at things from the other side of the fence. This can allows us to have a fully considered view of where we are going and make up our own minds once we have looked at all alternatives.”
Once you have found the right person, get to know them before asking them about starting a formal mentoring relationship. And when you ask them, set the agenda right from the start, including the time commitment involved.
“Explain that you admire their work and would like to learn from them. Ask for no more than an hour of their time every month or two weeks at times convenient to them or by phone,” says McGuinness.
“Explain what you are looking for, why you feel you need a mentor and how you believe they could help you.”
Structured mentoring programs
If networking or approaching someone is not your thing, or if you haven’t been able to find someone you truly trust and admire, there are plenty of structured programs through which you can access professional mentors specifically tailored to your industry and needs.
“A structured program offers the most immediate benefits in that there is a fixed term and a number of meetings required within that term,” says McGuinness.
“There is usually a structure around the program in that group meetings are organised, as well as your mentee meetings, so the networking is fantastic. There is also a definite end to the program so you are likely to get a very high calibre of mentor who has a vested interest in providing you value through the mentoring term.”
Whether people choose to find a mentor through non-formal means or by paying someone through a structured program depends on the individual’s needs and preferences, according to Palmen.
“It’s about choice. It depends on where they are and what funds they have,” she says.
According to McGuinness, women can use a mix of both.
“Some will be more involved than others, but all will meet a specific need. I highly recommend paying for a mentor within a structured program as there is an expectation set on the number of meetings, homework and outcomes. The mentor has set aside time to meet with the mentee on a regular basis and is prepared to make time for them,” she says.
“Networking events can present you with a room full of mentors. Attend events where time is provided to connect with other guests … And also ask the [event] organiser – often a very under-utilised resource.”
We’re exploring how-tos on mentoring all week. Check back tomorrow for more on mentors.