Career Advancement

Want to advance your career? Don’t just find a mentor – be a mentor

Photo credit: marekuliasz, Shutterstock

Photo credit: marekuliasz, Shutterstock

There’s a lot of talk about having a mentor these days, and for good reason. But in order for us to have mentors, some of us need to be mentors, too!

You might be thinking that mentoring sounds like too big a commitment, that you have nothing to offer anyone as a mentor, or that there wouldn’t be any professional value in mentoring for you. Well, get ready for some myth-busting.

Myth #1: Mentoring is too big a commitment

Okay, this isn’t totally off base—mentoring could consume your life or cramp your style if you let it, but like most things, it’s what you make it. There are lots of ways to fit mentoring into your schedule without breaking the time or energy bank.

  • Pick a program with a reasonable schedule. Many mentoring programs take busy schedules into consideration and call for a small amount of time at fixed intervals, making them easy to plan around. For example, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs College of Business Alumni Association offers mentoring assistance to students and recent alums to help them transition to the business world; mentors are asked to commit two to four hours a month. Other organizations, like the venerable Big Brothers, Big Sisters, suggest that the mentor-mentee commitment be individually tailored, just advising that pairs “keep a consistent schedule of outings and meet on a regular basis.”

  • Don’t get in over your head. If you don’t want to sign up for too steep a learning curve, make sure to mentor in an area or with a community you already know well. For example, if you’re good with money, United Way of the Piedmont’s financial literacy mentorship could be an easy fit. Or if you’ve spent time in the Peace Corps, you’d probably feel right at home joining their mentoring program for new recruits.

Myth #2: I have nothing to offer as a mentor

Don’t be modest—you’re good at lots of things, including many you probably take for granted. You don’t need a PhD in English to help teach someone to read, or have an NBA-worthy dunk to play basketball in the park with a kid. This is just as true in the professional realm, where there are many options to share what you know, even if it feels basic to you.

  • Explore mentoring at work. Depending on where you work, there could already be some existing mentoring opportunities. In the legal community, for example, pairing law students with established lawyers is a long-standing tradition that can aid students’ career advancement and help professionals stay in touch with current trends in legal academia.

But it doesn’t have to be formal. If your workplace doesn’t have any mentoring programs in place, consider starting the ball rolling by proposing more casual opportunities for knowledge-sharing. A great example is “brown bags,” where one team member gives a short presentation over lunch on an interesting project she’s done or a conference she’s just attended—again, no need to be a career expert in something so long as you have a slice of worthwhile knowledge. Not only is useful information shared, but staff members get a better idea of who knows what in the organization, and who they can turn to for help with specific issues. Think of it as pint-sized mentoring!

For more ideas and info about formal versus casual mentoring models, see this post by the Australian Institute of Building Surveyors.

  • Connect with alumni. Most institutions of higher learning have a mentoring program that matches alumni with current students. Depending on the type of match sought, you needn’t have particular post-college expertise—some students will be more keen to learn how you navigated the social ropes of university experience, or be curious about how your lifestyle changed after you graduated. Some schools, like Marquette University, segment their mentoring program into academic areas of focus; others, like the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign base theirs on Greek connections. Check in with your alma mater to see what they do.

Myth #3: There’s no professional value in mentoring for me

Nothing could be further from the truth! Two key reasons why:

  • All in the family. If you volunteer to mentor within your professional world, don’t believe it’s strictly an act of charity or that you don’t stand to benefit from the exchange too. Mentoring can give professionals face-to-face introductions to the next generation of the talent pool: your next hire could be your mentee or one of his classmates. On the flipside, in our increasingly flat world, the bright college sophomore you mentor today could be running a robust startup in three years that you’d love to work for. And don’t forget the extra chances you’ll get to hone your coaching, leadership, and management skills. For a great list of the professional benefits of mentoring, check out this Mind Tools post.

  • Everyone loves a mentor. You never know who you’ll wind up talking to at a dinner party, and the more interesting, generous activities you have on your chat resume, the more doors will unexpectedly open for you. Mentorship is also a terrific addition to a resume, no matter what your professional focus. In a recent survey, 76% of nonprofit hiring managers cited nonprofit experience, including volunteering, as “important” when screening potential new hires.

Mentoring best practices

In mentoring as in life, some basic best practices apply:

    • Keep your word. You’re probably volunteering in this role, but for best results, you should still always strive to be on time and do what you said you’d do.

    • Know your boundaries. Don’t fall prey to feelings of superiority or parental-level protectiveness with your mentee. You’re there to help them grow, not to make yourself feel better or dictate their decisions. If you encounter issues with your mentee that you don’t feel you can handle on your own, ask for help—the program’s coordinators, the mentee’s family, and your colleagues could all be good candidates for advice and information.

Have you been a mentor? What takeaways from the experience would you share with the Idealist community?

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