29- Engage a great mentor for career success
Having a relationship with a great mentor is important to your career success. Famous astronaut Buzz Aldrin completed his Ph.D. at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His thesis, “Line-of-Sight Techniques for Manned Orbital Rendezvous,” lists four reviewers. Although it is not clear that one of them was a true mentor to him, certainly, they contributed to his completing the work that would later be used as part of NASA’s space exploration program, and it is likely that at least one of them was a continued mentor to Buzz throughout his career. Buzz’s success is due to many factors, one of which is having strong mentors throughout his life and career.
It is likely that at some point in your life you picked a favorite teacher or coach and gravitated toward that person. Perhaps that person smiled at you and encouraged you, and in turn, you accepted their effort to teach you something new. These teachers are important throughout life. However, you also need a mentor. A true mentor doesn’t just teach you; they inspire you and hold you to a higher standard. Your mentor may, or may not, have more knowledge than you do; the key is that they help you develop your own knowledge base and guide you through difficult decisions.
I studied Civil Engineering in college. This major is known for training students to solve technical problems, but is typically not known for teaching non-technical inter-personal skills required for career success. My coursework taught me to think about problems critically and follow certain procedures to develop solutions. For example, when trying to figure out how to design a bridge you can use physics to determine where the beams should be placed (try it here for fun). These types of problems can be solved using recipe-like steps. However, in the real world you are often dealing with other people when trying to solve problems. This interaction added another layer of complexity to problems I tried to solve. Luckily, I developed a relationship with an engineer that also has strong people skills. As a mentor, he taught me how to approach difficult people-related problems in a systematic way. These types of real world skills are, sadly, not often taught in the classroom. However, he helped me become proficient in navigating relationships. Often, when a difficult situation arises with a client, we take the time to plan the conversation and then role-play. This type of guidance and confidence boosting mentoring has been invaluable throughout my career.
Do you have someone like this in your career? If not, I challenge you to start looking today. The first step is to start actively looking inside and outside of your company for a mentor. While it might seem easier to pick a mentor that you currently work with, keep in mind you should only choose a mentor in your company if you believe you will be able to talk to them in a safe environment. It is crucial that your mentor can serve as a sounding board, someone who will listen to your ideas and provide unbiased and constructive feedback. One of the benefits to having a mentor who does not work at your company is that they are more likely to evaluate your situation objectively because they are not personally vested in the outcome. Once you decide if you prefer to have an in-house or outside mentor, start looking for formal and informal programs.
Many companies and trade groups have formal mentor programs. The advantage to taking part in a formal program is that the volunteer mentors are motivated to give their time and expertise to help the mentees grow. A potential downside to using a formal program is that you may not find a mentor that you get along with, as one is typically chosen for you. This is why I prefer to find a mentor outside of a formal program. I recommend starting by evaluating people you meet to find someone that you respect and want to model your career after. Now, I know what some of you are thinking, “I don’t know where I want to be at the end of my career. In fact, I don’t even know where I see myself 5 years from now.” That’s okay. Find someone who you respect and can form a personal relationship with and then observe your potential mentor and evaluate them based on the way they handle specific situations. Once you identify the key skills you want to learn from them, ask if they have time to help you. Many of these skills will help you be successful even if you change jobs or even careers.
For example, if you are a new teacher struggling with how to deliver an effective lesson, find a veteran teacher and ask to sit in on their class. Take notes on how they talk to the students and share their knowledge. Afterward, you can ask them to review your lesson plan and sit in on your class so they can provide constructive feedback.
A great mentor will encourage you to develop your skills and find information for yourself, but offers help you when you run into an obstacle. Once you find a mentor and develop a relationship with them remember to be open to their advice and guidance. If your mentor is doing their job, conversations with them will not always by easy. To go farther in your career, you need to surround yourself with people who will challenge you; this is particularly important regarding your relationship with your mentor. Their job is to raise the bar higher, encourage you to go over it, and assist when you fall trying.
Just as their job is to raise the bar on a consistent basis, you should evaluate your mentor/mentee relationship often. Don’t be afraid to change your mentor after a certain period of time. Your goals and interests will change as you grow in your career. It is critical that you choose a mentor that can help you move forward on your current path.
To be successful, find a great mentor and interact with them regularly. Start by looking inside and outside of your company for a mentor. Next, identify someone you respect and want to model your career after, ask for help. Finally, be open to guidance from your new mentor and engage fully with them.
How did you find your current mentor?