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Finding a mentor: What's stopping you?

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A strong mentor can help a young woman find and advance in the career of her dreams that otherwise may have seemed impossible.

Kirsten Gillibrand, US politician

Only one fifth of everywomanNetwork members have a mentor, and yet many avoid efforts to invite the benefits of support, guidance, knowledge, insight and encouragement into their lives. Or, once they’ve identified a dream mentor, they shy away from asking for their input (only 34% of everywomanNetwork members feel entirely comfortable asking their mentor of choice for their time and expertise).

In our recent everywomanNetwork webinar ‘How can I get the most out of mentoring’, Sara Parsons shone a light on some of the key reasons you might have avoided being mentored until now, and how you can move forward with a new frame of mind.

 

‘I don’t want someone else in control of my career’

It’s a common misconception, says everywoman associate Sara Parsons, to view mentoring as ‘something that’s done to us’. Before mentoring can become truly effective you have to get the mindset right. ‘Even if you’re being mentored by a senior person in your organisation, see it as something you take part in.’

Furthermore, a good mentor is one who wants their mentee to be proactive about their learning and development. By taking ownership of the relationship, you set the agenda in accordance with whatever it is you want to get out of each session. As US racing driver Bobby Unser said: ‘Success is where preparation and opportunity meet’.

 

‘I’ve someone in mind but I’m too scared to ask’

Bear in mind, says Sara Parsons, that most people will be very flattered to be asked. If you approach politely and explain what it is you want from the relationship (see below), you might be surprised by how positive a reaction you get. If the answer’s a no it might be due to time constraints or because whomever you’ve asked doesn’t believe they’re the right person to help you achieve your goals. Don’t take it personally and ask if they can recommend your next move along the path to finding a mentor.

 

‘I’d like a mentor but I’m not sure what I want out of the relationship’

Many a mentoring partnership flounders, says Sara Parsons, because the mentee hasn’t been clear enough about what they’re looking for, be it advice on a particular matter, support through a stressful time, guidance with career choices, a partner with whom to brainstorm a solution, or the story of someone who’s been there, done that.

If you’re unsure on where you need help it might be because, like 36% of everywomanNetwork members, you only pause to consider your strengths and weaknesses come annual review time. Conducting regular SWOT analyses can get you unstuck and focused on what you need. Ask a friend, colleague or line manager if you need help answering the following questions.

Strengths

  • What are you most proud of?
  • What are you known for within your organisation?
  • What’s the thing people come to you for help with?
  • What tasks energise and inspire you most?
  • For what have you received the best feedback?

Weaknesses

  • What activities, projects or meetings do you actively avoid if you can?
  • What areas of business are you most hesitant about?
  • Where are you outperformed by colleagues?

Opportunities

  • What activities are going on outside and inside your organisation that you can get involved in?
  • Where are you outshining others?
  • What talents or skills can you offer which are currently being underutilised?

Threats

  • What skills do you lack that are needed in your organisation both today and in the future?
  • Are there obstacles at home or at work that are getting in the way of your best output?

 

‘I’ve had a mentor in the past but the relationship quickly ran aground’

It’s common for first sessions with mentors to not go according to plan. Often that’s because there wasn’t an actual plan to follow, but even if you’ve done your SWOT analysis and set your agenda, there are still times when the partnership doesn’t take off.

The failure of a mentor relationship to blossom is often, says Sara Parsons, a result of the mentee’s approach. A common mistake is to try to impress the mentor. He or she doesn’t want to know what you’re great at; they want to know what you need and where they can add value.

Beware of telling your mentor that the relationship is one of your objectives (they want to know it’s a really personal commitment on your part), and failing to realise that the connection needs time to develop. Chemistry is important, but instant magnetism isn’t the be all and end all.

Finally, says Sara, ensure you agree a ‘contract’ upfront. Only once both you and your mentor are clear about the overarching objective can you ensure that objectives will be met. If you find the conversation going too far off-piste, coming back to your goals is a tactful way to keep things on track.

 

‘I don’t want to appear lacking in front of a senior member of my organisation’

So you’ve found your dream mentor, a well-respected figure in your organisation. But you don’t want to ask for their help with your presentation or negotiation skills, or guidance as you get a new team or project off the ground, for fear this ‘admission of weakness’ gets back to your boss or direct reports.

This is a common mindset, says Sara Parsons, and one which must be grappled with if a partnership is to flourish. ‘You have to not be afraid to make mistakes in front of you mentor,’ says Sara Parsons. ‘Usually a more senior person is old and wise enough to realise that mistakes are how we learn.’

By extension, it’s vital you take your mentor off their pedestal and approach the relationship on an equal footing. It can be helpful to remember that mentors get a lot out of the relationship too. See everywoman associates Enid Kotorobo (Barclays Uganda), Anna Lee (STORM London) and Kerry McGuire (technology giant ARM) discussing the enormous satisfaction they glean from coaching others.

 

‘My issues aren’t that significant; I should deal with them alone’

The smaller issues are often catalysts for bigger problems, and so however unimportant you consider your needs, let your mentor be the judge.

Having someone throw the spotlight on your concerns can lead to a path of enlightenment for finding root causes and effective solutions. But sometimes you might just need a little reassurance – and that’s also where the right mentor can be worth their weight in gold.

 

‘I’m not sure how I should behave in the mentoring session’

The key quality you can bring to the session is listening, says Sara Parsons. Be in the moment, not thinking about what you’re going to say next. Think beforehand about what questions you want to ask your mentor.

The best possible way to show your mentor that you’re really listening is to take time to really reflect on what was learned. Your mentor wants to be of value; motivate them by demonstrating how your sessions are making an impact and inching you towards your goals.

 

Find more great tips in the everywomanNetwork workbook Getting the most out of being mentored.