Is there anything new to say about the importance of having a mentor? I didn’t think so until I noticed just how many of my coaching clients didn’t really have one. My experience tells me that having a mentor has moved decidedly from the “Nice to Have” column to a “Must Have” tool in your career management tool box.
Mentors help others through career transitions, job searches or preparing for elevation within their current organization. This involves a lot of time, effort, energy, creativity and outreach. Yet, I’ve found that too many people are facing their particular career challenges all alone. This isn’t only unwise; it's unnecessary. Your next mentor is probably hiding in plain sight.
How can a mentor help you? Let’s start with the following:
- Information: An experienced mentor will dramatically increase your access to information, not only about your organization, but also about the sector in which you are working, the external environment, major players, individuals and offices that are going places and those which are dead ends.
- Advice: Along with information, a mentor has the benefit of having learned lessons from their own journey. And while everyone’s career path will follow its own course, a mentor’s relevant experience can provide important perspectives, allowing them the opportunity to offer strategic and tactical advice, and different ways of thinking about pursuing your own goals.
- Contacts: A good mentor will open her rolodex and actively assist you in broadening your own network. In the world of online applications, search firms and LinkedIn Premium job leads, a key contact often makes a difference between securing an interview and having your resume languish in someone’s inbox.
- Perspective: Career transitions can be stressful, frustrating and anxiety-producing. No one should go through them alone. A supportive spouse, partner or friend is always a good place to turn, but a seasoned mentor can also provide much-needed perspective, serving as an informed sounding-board, providing a source of alternative explanations of why things happen and bringing new perspectives by sitting at a distance from the challenges you face.
- Support: While offering perspective, a mentor should also be invested enough to offer 100 percent support when times are tough. It always helps to have someone with you who knows where you have been and how to empathize when it looks like more doors are closing than opening. It is also great to have someone cheering or buying the drinks when that job offer or promotion comes through.
So, why doesn’t everyone have a mentor? I can think of four reasons. Folks are afraid to ask; they don’t know whom to ask; should they find a mentor, they’re afraid they won’t know what to ask. And finally, maybe they feel they don’t need a mentor.
None of these are serious obstacles for finding your next mentor:
“I’m afraid to ask. I don’t want to take up their time.” Remember that no one ever got their job completely on their own. Most successful individuals will point to several people who helped them along the way. Many organizations have a strong mentoring culture where doors will generally be open to you. Also, mentoring needn’t mean a long-term commitment: you can often frame it as a request for specific advice or contacts for a specific purpose.
And finally, many mentors get their own psychological rewards by helping others to succeed. Mentoring others gives them an opportunity to “pay it forward,” honoring the mentoring that they may have received along the way.
"I don't know whom to ask." Think about a meeting where the chair did a particularly effective job. Tell them that you thought they did an excellent job and ask them to coffee. Look for someone who has an interesting career path that you may want to follow and see if they have time to chat. Listen to your colleagues about the best places to work and what they say about the leadership of that office and then talk to people who work there.
This trail will often lead you to an effective leader and potential mentor. I have advised colleagues to have multiple mentors: one for career advice, another who may be your go-to person for technical advice in your field and a third who you call for the “911” assistance on a terrible day.
"Now that I’ve got a mentor, what do we talk about?" This is the easy part. You’ll want to do a little thinking about your career needs and goals before you meet. You’ll find that most mentors will want to help and will need little prompting.
When you first sit down with your mentor, I recommend giving a short synopsis of your career journey and current goals and then ask, “How would you advise someone in my situation?” Two great follow-up questions for your mentor are “What else should I be doing?” and “Are there other people you think I should contact?”
"I don't think I need a mentor." As federal agencies labor through the current hiring freeze and state and local governments see their budgets contract, job openings and career movement are likely to follow suit. It is precisely in these times that having a mentor’s knowledge, contacts and insight is a requirement for those looking to advance your career.
Exploring a mentoring conversation with a respected colleague certainly won’t hurt and it is likely to help.
Many if not all federal agencies have some sort of mentoring program. A 2014 study I did for my agency found that mentoring resources are plentiful, of high quality and easily accessible for those who seek this information. It also revealed that HR departments are getting more sophisticated in developing programs that offer new approaches to meet the needs of those looking for mentors – from traditional pairing approaches to one-time situational or “flash-mentoring” programs, speaker series and advice-giving sessions focused on a single topic of interest. There are also many simple networking opportunities for those interested in identifying a mentor.
Who knows? Your next mentor may be out there just waiting to help you.
Neil A. Levine is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.