Close your eyes for a moment and think about the word “mentor.” What image came to mind? Chances are, for many of you, it was an old, wise person, most likely a man, someone who has achieved great personal or professional success and has enormous wisdom to impart to you, the novice, the empty vessel, the apprentice. This version of mentorship worked fine for a while, back when we had things like apprentices, and before women and other underrepresented groups were allowed seats at the table. Today we must shift our concept of what or who a mentor should be. In today’s world of boundaryless careers, careers that are shaped by the individual, not a single organization, the burden is on the individual to seek out diverse mentoring networks, people who can help us at every stage of our career, from entry-level to executive.
Before we can identify the people who can help us, first we need to know who we are and where our knowledge and skill gaps are. In fact, there are three core career competencies that we each must master, at every stage of our career:
Knowing Why: This career competency is about your ability to articulate what motivates you to do what you do each day. What drives you and causes you to get out of bed and show up each day? Why did you choose to do this particular job? What motivates you to do your best each day?
Knowing How: This career competency is about the skills and knowledge that you need to perform your current role, and, ultimately, the skills and knowledge that you will need to successfully transition into your next role.
Knowing Who: Finally, this career competency is about the people in your network who both can help inform your responses to the knowing why and how questions and provide opportunities and resources to help you along your path.
It is only AFTER answering the knowing why and knowing how questions that you should start to answer the knowing who question. No matter how formal or informal the relationship, you should never expect someone else to invest in you and your growth and development until you are willing to do that work for yourself. Once you have done so, then it’s time to ask yourself: Whom do you currently know who can support your career goals? Who’s missing?
Your goal here is to develop a broad network of both strong and weak ties. Strong ties include close friends, family members, and professional connections, the people who know you well, who have seen you at your best and your worst, and would do just about anything for you. These are the people who will always answer the phone when you call. You will likely find your more formal mentoring relationships here. And we all need weak ties, people who bring added perspective and diversify our networks, but may not be up for a deep level relationship. Sometimes these people can be even more important to our networks. Look at your gaps and think about what you are missing, in terms of experience, knowledge, skills, or understanding. How can a more diverse network help you to fill those gaps?
So how do you find the people who can fill your network, both strong and weak ties? Here are a few simple steps:
- Pay attention. Most likely there are people around you, right now, who are actively trying to advise and to guide you on your path. You simply aren’t paying attention. So instead of asking the question, “Why won’t anyone mentor me?”, try asking the question, “Who is already mentoring me and how can I take more advantage of that relationship?”
- Build intentional relationships. Mentoring relationships are built upon two fundamental characteristics: they are goal-oriented and they are relationship-driven. Individually, you need to identify the goals that you are prepared to work on. But you also need to work on building intentional relationships with other people before you ask them to support your goals.
- Broaden your choices. Don’t limit potential mentors and connections to the people who are immediately around you. Think about people in professional organizations, civic organizations, social and alumni associations, and elsewhere. Sometimes the people who can provide the most impact are those who aren’t in our immediate realm of influence.
- Seek out formal programs. Formal mentorship programs can expose you to people within your organization with whom you would not necessarily come in contact. Check to see if your organization offers a formal program that you can join, and if not, think about whether you could start one. Chances are that if you are looking for it, others are as well.
- Don’t force yourself on people. Finally, and this is an important one, if someone says no to you, say thank you and move on. Research shows, time and again, that the absolute best mentor is the one who is willing to invest his or her time in you.
No matter your career stage, we all can serve as mentors to others, and we all need mentors. But no one is just going to hand it to you. Think about the steps that you can take to broaden your network and intentionally create the future that you want.