I will never forget sitting in the office of my grad school advisor, and asking her to change my major.
“You have no idea what you want to do with your life, do you?” she asked. I felt so ashamed, like everyone must have had their entire career figured out except me.
Thankfully, I had reliable mentors who encouraged my exploration and curiosity, and helped me find my path. One of these was my college public health advisor, who provided me with direction long after graduation. He became a sounding board when I was at the crossroads of my career and supported my diverse interests of medicine, policy, and entrepreneurship. He helped me see how I could connect these interests and forge my own path.
A great mentor can see your potential and offer guidance with your goals and aspirations across your career. This ongoing, mutual connection is a hallmark of the mentorship relationship. This differs from a coach who can help address specific personal and professional challenges, like the imposter syndrome, or work to prepare you for a job search or career pivot. A sponsor or champion, conversely, may not interact as directly with you, but is well-connected and influential and actively takes steps to advocate for you and introduce you to hidden or closed-door opportunities.
Finding a Mentor
So, how can you find a mentor that can lift you up in your career? Don’t limit yourself to your school, your team, your company, or even your industry. More importantly, choose someone who aligns with your personal and career values. What are their leadership characteristics? How did they get to the top? What sacrifices did they make? You want to make sure that the advice you receive makes sense for your unique goals.
Now more than ever, virtual connections are easy and commonplace. You can reach out to a potential mentor through alumni networks, interest groups, online events, and even social media. Look for successful people who are 1-2 levels higher than you, but don’t discount an inspirational peer whose goals parallel your own. Important qualities in mentors include humility, empathy, and being a skilled communicator (both speaking AND listening). Finally, think about creating a team of mentors, coaches, and sponsors that have varied styles and come from different backgrounds that can advise you on different topics.
One of the key qualities of my mentor was that he was sensitive to my cultural background and the specific barriers that I faced as a minority woman. The best mentors don’t just see your resume, but embrace you as a whole person.
Being a Great Mentee
Mentorship isn’t a magic bullet. You can make the most out of your mentor-mentee relationship by being an active participant. Go in with an agenda, a set of questions, and specific requests for feedback (like your resume or skills) or connections. And remember that mentorship, like any good partnership, is a two-way street. Share your learnings about events, new productivity tools, or the latest journal article.
Don’t know where to start? Ask about your mentor’s career journey and be open and vulnerable about the struggles that you are facing at work. Use your mentor as an advisor, but resist the urge to turn it into a therapy session. Creating trust and respect in your bond will help to make that relationship persist long-term.
Paying it Forward
My relationship with my mentor came full circle when I returned to speak to his class about my career path and became a mentor to another one of his students. Once you’ve gained confidence and experience as a mentee, pay it forward. You’ll find that being on the flip side of the equation has its benefits – including improving your own leadership and communication skills. It is never too early to become a mentor, as you’re always a step ahead of someone else, and you can continue your journey of career growth to lift up the next generation of leaders.