Starting a career is much like swimming. At first you are just focused on getting into the water, adjusting to the climate, and then getting moving. Soon after, you’ve mastered the strokes, you find yourself swimming freely, you are starting to look like a pro, but you are looking for direction. When it comes to your career, this is where having a mentor comes in handy.
Whether your mentor is someone 5 years older than you, or 50 years older than you, learning from the wisdom of others in your field is invaluable to progressing your career. It is important, however, to think about the type of mentor that is suitable to you.
Decide what your goals are
A mentor can be useful for a variety of reasons. Do you wish for a mentor to actively challenge and push your boundaries? Do you wish for a mentor to help facilitate your introduction to other professionals in your field? Or, do you just want someone to swap war stories and share experiences with?
Either or all of these desires can be valid reasons for seeking out a mentor; you just have to decide what your exact aims are at the start.
Establish what your mentor’s goals are
It’s vital you find out what the goals of your mentor are. Generally speaking, while a good mentor shall be gracious – they usually get little return on their time invested, save for enjoying a social event (and you picking up the bill for lunch).
This means you need to ask what a mentor’s goals are. Do they wish to mentor you so they too can learn about what the field looks like from a younger professionals perspective? Do they want you to assist in helping them bring about some sweeping changes at the office? Do they just want someone to share a drink with now and then with someone in the office away from the tensions that can exist in the boardroom?
Again, all these goals can be valid, but it’s important your priorities complement theirs, and vice versa.
Find a mentor on your wavelength
Being on the same wavelength as someone is vital to finding a good mentor. Undoubtedly you’re on the same wavelength with your closest friends – but they are not in your field. Some latitude here is surely worthwhile, but there is a limit to this.
A potential mentor can be a leader of your industry but if you’re unable to get through a coffee or lunch without a number of awkward silences it does not bode well for the relationship. If you find this dynamic exists it doesn’t mean either of you are bad people, just that you’ve different styles.
Just the same as Ben Affleck and Cate Blanchett have both become Hollywood stars but generally pursued different styles of movies, so too does it mean the path you wish to take for the success to which you aspire may be different to the one a potential mentor did. So, if you don’t feel you’ll be a good fit, find someone else.
Explore whether any conflicts of interest exist
An important consideration you make before setting up a regular appointment with your mentor is whether there is the potential for any conflicts of interest. It may not seem likely at first, but a variety of potential issues can arise if you work in the same field but for separate companies, or know the same colleagues, and other considerations in a similar vein.
Further, while worrying in-depth about what others think is generally not wise, however, it is important to consider whether a particular mentor is appropriate for your wider career as people will often form a view of you (whether we like it or not!) based on those with whom you align or seek to emulate.
It may appear after reading this that finding a good mentor can involve a bit of work – well it does. Be sure to know though, the rewards are worthwhile. Just like the old adage ‘a master has forgotten more than a beginner has ever learned’ the professional value you can gain from a good relationship with a mentor can be immense, as well as the opportunities with which you may be presented to give a little back to your mentor.
Andrew Sullivan is a leader in the field of recruitment and executive search. He is the Managing Director at SULLIVAN Consulting and is passionate about helping organisations attract, recruit and engage the right people. Follow Andrew on LinkedIn.