Why do you need a mentor? You don’t, unless you want to succeed. But if you’d like to benefit from the experience of another, someone who can see around corners and provide instant perspective along with institutional knowledge about your workplace and office politics, mentors can deliver that and more.
You can enhance your position at your existing job or, if you are transitioning to the non-profit world or switching into a whole new field, you will ramp up your career faster with a mentor.
If your career is a corporation, than you need a board of directors. A mentor is one of your board members, and you want and need a board that you can trust, one that has chemistry and can work synergistically with you.
So how does someone like you find the right mentor? They do not arrive pre-packaged and hand delivered to you with the rest of your employee information. You have to choose—seek out—a mentor.
Who to Choose
Select a mentor you can communicate with freely. Women and members of minorities that are underrepresented in the workplace may find it especially helpful to seek out mentors of the same background, and in general a common background may be helpful, though finding someone more complementary to yours may be just as much of an asset. A mentor can be a role model—someone you'd like to shape yourself after—though they do not have to be.
It is not a good idea to ask your direct supervisor to be your mentor; there will inevitably be potential conflicts of interest down the road, and you need someone with whom you can speak freely about your career and work issues. Also, avoid selecting a mentor who is very judgmental or appears controlling. Look for a positive, upbeat attitude—someone you believe capable of rooting for and contributing to another’s success.
Be open to someone who has more skills than you regardless of their age or station in life. They must be a person whose advice you respect, is supportive and willing to offer constructive criticism. What separates a mentor from the average network contact is their commitment to you and your future.
Meeting with Your Mentor
Commit yourself to your mentor and meet regularly. Your relationship will develop over time and the more you are together, the better the relationship and the better the results. Your meetings can be at work, at the gym or a local restaurant—any place that's comfortable and conducive to a productive exchange of ideas. Be respectful of your mentor’s time; don’t burden him or her with time demands. A monthly meeting is probably enough, though supplementary phone calls and e-mail are fine.
Is It Working?
You'll know your mentoring relationship is working if your mentor provides honest and constructive feedback, encourages you in pursuit of your goals, forges high level contacts for you, and helps you develop self-awareness.
Finally, remember mentor relationships are a two-way street. You can get just as much out of being a mentor as a mentee—and sometimes more.