Just like a good fairy tale, a mentoring relationship should have a happy ending. Each mentoring
relationship is different and has its own dynamics. Nevertheless, there are certain things you should think about when you are starting a relationship with a mentor. Just like any other relationship, these partnerships require love and caring to grow and support the needs of both people involved in it.
With this in mind, I’ve listed the “10 Steps to Creating a Mentoring Story with Fairy Tale Ending” below.
1) Ask Your Mentor for a New Mentor.
You’ve already found a good mentor. What do you do? Ask him for recommendations for someone else who would agree to be a mentor. Why would you do this? It’s called cross training. Different mentors have different knowledge bases and different types of expertise. So if you have a well-grounded mentoring relationship, you should say to your mentor: “I’m looking for someone who has expertise in XYZ. Do you know someone who has that expertise because I’m trying to get smart in it? Would you mind doing an email introduction?” If you click with the new mentor (or even if you don’t) you can still maintain your relationship with the old mentor. Remember, these two mentors may be good friends, so don’t badmouth one mentor to the other.
2) Ask the Mentor “Do You Know Someone Who …”
In some ways this is similar to item Number 1 above, but with a twist. Say you’re interviewing for a job and you’re looking for someone who has the inside scoop. Perhaps you’d like to talk to a team-member (who’s not on the interview panel) or a former team member. If the mentor agrees then you are well onto you way to getting some inside intelligence about the place you are interviewing to work. This is a good strategy for interviewing for any job, but it works particularly well if you are aiming to get a new job at an agency you are already working at. Within many agencies the leaders often know each other even if they work in different directorates or trades.
3) Ask a Former Supervisor to Be a Mentor.
It’s great to have a former supervisor as a mentor because the supervisor knows your strengths and the areas where you could improve your skills. Supervisors also good for something else (other than a recommendation). Did you ever consider asking a former supervisor to be on a mock job interview panel? Since the supervisor knows you well and what you REALLY did when you worked for them, they can hold you accountable when you stray from the truth.
4) Breaking up with Mentors.
Sometimes mentoring relationships start off great, but then go “blah.” That doesn’t mean there has to be bad blood. It’s just that that the mentoring relationship no longer serves you (or perhaps them) or both of you. Maybe you have different career philosophies. It’s bound to happen when you have had enough mentoring relationships over a long enough time period. Must you break up with them? I think not. If you don’t feel that meeting them is useful, just don’t call them. A good mentor won’t persist if you don’t call them or find time to meet with them. (Actually, most mentors are too busy to keep on checking in on you.) You’re not doing them or yourself a favor by meeting with them just because you worry about hurting their feelings. They’ll move on and so will you.
5) Send Updates.
If your mentor provided you with useful advice, let them know. What was the impact of their advice? Make sure your mentor knows.
6) Listen to Their Lives.
Your mentor has a life out of his or her day job. Pay attention to what they say. If this is a good mentor you should remember that he/she is married, has two children and is a soccer aficionado. Make sure to ask your mentor about his/her life at various points. Don’t go into overkill unless you develop a personal relationship with your mentor. But it’s good small talk to lead off.
7) Send Thank You Cards.
I learned early in my government career to send thank you cards for to mentors after I meet them for the first time. Their time is valuable so let them know you appreciate it. Send them a thank you card (if at all possible) the same day you meet them.
8) Which Mentor To Use?
When you need advice from a mentor it’s certainly wise to consider which one you have the best rapport with, but that’s not the only consideration. Also consider, based on your previous advice from various mentors, which ones might give an alternate perspective. If you sense a particular mentor is going to just agree with your perspective, why call that mentor? Call a different mentor who sees things different than you. You may be pleasantly surprised with their insight. Another consideration is availability. If you need quick advice under the gun, consider calling someone who you believe is able to come to bat for you under that tight schedule.
9) Find a Mentor Outside Your Technical Expertise.
Say you are a public affairs officer. Consider getting a mentor who is a manager in the systems coders group or in the facilities management division. It’s not as strange as it seems. You can learn a lot about leadership from managers who work in areas outside your area of expertise. You may even have your interest in a new skill or technology sparked. Find a mentor outside your area of expertise.
10) Monthly Meetings. Really?
A lot of career advisers suggest that you meet monthly with your mentor. But it all depends on what your needs and schedules are. People are busy. So take it on a case-by-case basis. If you both work at the same agency (especially if you see each other in the halls of your office) you can go long periods without contact then resume the relationship when you would like your mentor’s advice. If you’re working with someone who is really busy make sure you are on good terms with the mentor’s scheduler. If you don’t get along with the scheduler the scheduler may crowd you out of your mentor’s schedule even if that mentor wants to meet you.
All opinions are my own and not those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo by Jay D. Krasnow.