Mentorship: The Who, What, When, and How
Most of us have reached a time in our lives when we wonder what we’re doing. For some of us, this comes early. I remember wondering how I’d choose the “right” university to attend. Was my major really what I wanted to do with my life? What if I made the wrong choice? Fortunately, my parents were incredibly patient with me and helped me resolve these crises of self through lots of discussions. I was seventeen.
I had similar questions once I reached university. After about six months of concentrated study for my selected major, I was overwhelmed. How could I ever master the subject I’d chosen? I sought out our department co-chair and had some pretty frank discussions with him. His advice was to calm down, realize that I shouldn’t try to boil the ocean, and to take each day, each lesson, each new item learned as a victory. To truly embody the phrase, “’A journey of a thousand Chinese miles starts beneath one’s feet” (千里之行，始於足下). Since I was a Chinese language major, this really hit home. I was nineteen.
Without really realizing it, I had benefitted from excellent mentors to guide me at the very beginning of my adult life.
As we enter the workforce and mature in our careers, we may be less inclined to search out answers to our questions, as “society” may presume we know what we’re doing once we’re fully employed. And as women, particularly in certain industries, any form of uncertainty may give the appearance of weakness or indecisiveness. As a result, we may be less inclined to seek assistance.
What to do? Especially as we may only have more questions or develop new questions over time as we grow and change and learn. Questions such as:
- Do I like my job/career?
- How do I know I’m on the right path?
- What if I want to change my path completely?
- Who do I turn to when I am uncertain about accepting a new challenge or new offer?
A mentor can be incredibly helpful in answering these questions—but if you don’t already have one, how do you find one? There are a few things to consider:
Who might be an appropriate mentor?
Mentors might appear from various facets of your life. If your current need for mentorship is career-related, don’t limit your search to those individuals in your current field, company, or existing network. Explore other avenues: perhaps you admire the work ethic of someone in your exercise class, or maybe you enjoy how an individual discusses comments in a faith-based study class. Other points of view can be incredibly helpful.
Remember that mentorship also comes in many forms:
- Informal: Someone you don’t have a relationship with but use as a model for your behavior
- Moderately formal: A mentor will to work with you on a volunteer basis
- Formal: A professional relationship such as a life or career coach
One of my most valuable mentorships was with an Economics professor who taught a set of honors courses I attended at university. I had no affinity for economics whatsoever but learned so much from her over the years simply by showing up during her office hours and discussing a wide variety of subjects and concepts.
What do I need from a mentor?
Before formalizing any form of mentee/mentor relationship, outline your goals, including what you hope to obtain from this relationship. Consider what mentorship will entail; for example, if the mentor recommends additional reading, research, thought exercises, etc., will you commit to executing on their recommendations?
Be honest with yourself about your expectations. Are you approaching mentorship as a learning and growth opportunity, or are you looking for someone to tell you what to do next or validate decisions you have already made? Are you looking for a long-term mentoring relationship or something more tactical? Remember that this will be an investment of time from the mentor as well, so have a clear understanding of what you need so that you can share this with the individual.
My own goals have changed over time: at one point in my career, I wanted advice about working as a single woman while traveling alone for business throughout Asia. At another point, I desired guidance about achieving a more equitable work/personal life balance. For something of greater significance, you might pursue formal career coaching. I took advantage of this path about eight years ago when trying to decide whether to remain in technology and/or with my employer at the time. That experience was incredibly valuable for my decision-making process.
When? What’s the time commitment of a mentorship relation?
There are logistics to consider as well. Do you want a regular dialog? How frequently? During working hours or on evenings and weekends? How much time do you want to invest? Also, how quickly do you need a mentor?
Figuring out the answers to these questions may seem intimidating. But as with life, you don’t need all of the answers all at once. Consider starting small, with one or two interactions with a possible mentor. After those initial connections, both you and your mentor candidate can determine if the relationship is working and decide if adjustments are needed. You can also conclude that the arrangement isn’t right and evaluate other mentor candidates.
How do I work with my mentor?
After you’ve identified candidates for your mentorship, the time you’re willing to invest, and know your timeline, consider how best to work with them.
If your mentor is local and willing to meet in person, does that fit your vision and your/their comfort level? That may relate to how frequently you’re planning to meet. Will every session be in person or will you blend in-person and remote meetings?
Even if your mentor is willing to meet, consider if a remote option is more appropriate due to availability, time of day, or other considerations (e.g., COVID-19). As we know, more options are available than ever due to the technology that’s matured during the past few years (e.g., Zoom) and the overall acceptance of using virtual alternatives.
Working with a mentor can be an incredibly rewarding activity. Understanding the who, what, when, and how details before entering into a mentorship will make your experience even more beneficial.