Having a mentor is one of the best ways to get ahead in your career. A good mentor can help you grow your knowledge, avoid pitfalls, and hold you accountable to your goals.
What many people get wrong is treating their mentor as someone to go to when they have a question they can't answer. That's not the best use of a mentor, and is also quite disrespectful of their time. They aren't a human Google search, and treating them as one will ruin the relationship.
The Job of a Mentor
What a mentor should be doing for you is:
- Making introductions and helping you connect with others
- Coaching you towards solving your own problems
- Helping you with after-action reviews of your work
- Guiding you along learning paths towards your career goals
To do those things, it's best to work with your mentor in a structured, organized manner.
How to Work With Your Mentor
In a recent Reddit post I recommended that the best way to use a mentor is to schedule a regular meeting with them. Meeting once per week should be about the right frequency. For a mentor outside of your organization, you might only need to meet on a monthly basis.
During your meetings try to achieve the following:
- Learn the why, not the how – We often learn tasks and step-by-step processes without understanding the reason for them. In my earliest help desk job we were often tasked with setting NTFS permissions on file shares. I didn't know why the permissions were designed the way they were, I just did what I was told to do. It wasn't until a senior technician explained to me the reason for the permissions design that I understood. Doing the task that specific way solved one problem, and avoided many others. I applied that learning in many situations in the years to come.
- Review your biggest challenge from the previous week – Take your biggest/most puzzling problem that you solved. Something that took longer than you thought it should take. Have your mentor review your work and how it could get done faster, better, or more efficiently in future.
- Seek advice on upcoming work – Go over your next piece of planned work and how you intend to approach it. Have your mentor critique your plan. This forces you to defend your decision making and show you've done research and testing. Also they can help you avoid major pitfalls you might not have considered.
- Pick one topic of interest to you and ask how your organization approaches it. For example, you might be reading about a Cryptolocker outbreak in the news. You can ask your mentor how the organization mitigates that risk, what gaps they know exist, how they plan to deal with outbreaks should they occur, and so on.
- Return your homework to them – No doubt in the above items you'll get sent away to research something. This is your chance to come back and explain your findings.
The above list would take 30-45 minutes, but shouldn't go for longer than an hour. Again, you need to respect your mentor's time and energy. An hour is a lot for them to give.
Don't Rely Solely on Your Mentor
Even if you have a great mentor, you shouldn't lean on them 100% of the time. One of the great benefits of mentors is gaining access to other people that your mentor knows.
Simply asking your mentor “Who can I talk to about…?” is a simple way to get an introduction to a new person. The more people you get to know, the bigger your professional network grows. In the long term, that will help you gain access to career opportunities that never show up in public job ads.
Some Mentors Are Not for Life
It's okay to have a short-term mentor/mentee relationship. Not all your mentors will last for years on end. It's quite normal for a mentor to help you break through to the next level of your career, and then both of you disengage for a while.
As you get further along your career you will also find that you have fewer mentors, and more peers – people who are roughly at the same level as you. You help each other by bringing different perspectives and experience to the table. These peer relationships are more mutually beneficial than a mentor/mentee relationship.
How to Find a Mentor
Mentors aren't just handed to you. If you want one, you may need to go and find them. Ask your team leader or manager if they can suggest someone to mentor you in your job. Or if they can't do that, approach potential mentors yourself and ask them.
Be proactive in your approach. Being asked to mentor someone can be a bit confronting. Especially if the person you're asking doesn't already have a good coaching habit. They'll worry about how much work they'll need to do by mentoring you.
In those situations, ask them if they can give you 30-45 minutes of their time every few weeks to go through the structure I outlined above. If you're the one doing all the heavy lifting, and all they need to do is show up and respond to what you're showing or asking them, it makes it much easier for them to say yes.
If you've got any tips or stories to share on how to build strong mentor/mentee relationships, please leave a comment below.