If you are just beginning your professional career you may not have someone who fills the role of mentor. You may wonder if, or why, you even need one. Things are going well on the job, and you feel comfortable with your boss and coworkers. Is a mentor really necessary?
Mentors come in many different forms and they serve a variety of roles. If you participated in organized athletics in high school or college, your coach, in addition to helping you achieve on the playing field, may have served as a role model and mentor. Perhaps he or she encouraged you to look at a certain college program and wrote a letter of reference for your admission.
College professors, especially those in your major concentration, often fill mentoring roles. Maybe one or two of yours were helpful when you were trying to find the right path through all the available choices in your chosen field. These were the professors who offered, or agreed, to write letters of reference for your job application or for graduate school.
As a professional, you may have to work a little harder to find a mentor. Many people are happy to give you advice, but a mentor goes beyond that. They are interested in you achieving and succeeding at the highest possible level. They are accessible and keep confidences. They support and encourage you, without imposing their personal views or goals. They are usually in a background role; in fact, they often are outside your place of employment. Their success doesn’t depend on your success.
Can bosses be mentors? Some can, but it’s tricky. They can be excellent role models, but because there is a power differential–they hold your paycheck after all–it may be a bit of a conflict. It also can be difficult to talk to the boss you are trying to impress about your insecurities or future career hopes and goals.
Can your circle of friends serve the mentoring role for you? Some researchers have noted that young people today don’t value expert opinion. Instead they look to a consensus of opinions from their peer network. It is always helpful to have the support and encouragement of your friends, but generally, your friends are no more experienced than you are in employment matters. That’s where a mentor comes in.
Mentors generally have years of experience upon which they base their advice. They have acquired a certain wisdom in your field and for your situation. They can help you think through situations and consider options. They encourage you to take a risk, confront an issue, try a new approach, and find a positive resolution to your problem or situation. You can rely on them to be thoughtful and non-judgmental.
Mentorships can occur spontaneously or more formally. Someone may introduce you to a person you simply click with and with whom you want to continue the conversation. Or you may eventually approach someone in your field and ask them for career advice. If you find a person willing to be become your mentor, make it a point to keep the relationship going. Keep in touch on a regular basis. Let them know you value their support and input.
Mentors are like a secret weapon for workplace success. If, during your career, you have one or two or more, consider yourself very lucky.
January is National Mentoring Month. Take a few minutes to thank those individuals who have been especially helpful to you. Even better, consider how you can become a mentor for a young person in your community. It’s never too early to give back.