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How to Choose a Professional Mentor

26 Aug

No matter what industry you work in or what level you're at in your career, you could benefit from the guidance of a professional mentor. Mentorship is a calling for a certain kind of talented business veteran who understands that passing down the lessons they have learned through years of experience is deeply important to the growth and success of the next generation of managers and leaders. But how do you identify the right person to ask to fill this crucial role in your professional life? And how do you establish a strong mentor-mentee relationship with them?

Below, read five tips for choosing a mentor in any profession. Learn how to find someone who can truly connect to your goals and help you on your career path, as well as how to work most effectively with your professional mentor.

Start by Looking Within

It may seem counterintuitive, but the first conversation you need to have while searching for a professional mentor is one with yourself. The decision to seek out career guidance needs to stem from a very specific idea of exactly where it is you want to go. Beyond simply having a dream job in mind, you should list out ahead of time specific steps that you will need assistance completing as you work toward it.1

Do you need assistance developing a key professional skill that you know is currently missing from your resume? Or would you benefit from additional experience with and pointed advice about the interview process? Whatever your professional development requirements are, you must understand them deeply yourself before you can set about choosing a mentor to help you meet your needs and accomplish your goals.

Your Professional Mentor: Neither a Manager nor a Coach

When assessing how to choose a mentor, a very common mistake that many professionals make is to confuse mentorship for either management or career coaching. If you enter your search for a professional mentor by assuming that your current manager is going to be a top candidate, you may be unnecessarily narrowing your focus. If you work at a large company and aspire to your manager's job, they may not be particularly interested in helping put you on competitive footing with them.2 And even if they are sympathetic to your career goals, they may struggle to balance their responsibilities to the company as your manager to your specific needs as a mentee.

It is also important that you distinguish mentorship from career coaching while you search for a professional mentor. The most basic difference between the two is that you typically pay a career coach for targeted professional development advice; the transactional nature of this relationship necessarily limits the scope of the impact they can have on you.3 While they may help you develop your LinkedIn profile, build your resume or identify the right opportunities to apply to, they likely will not take your long-range development into consideration the way a true mentor would.

Coordinate Schedules

After a healthy period of soul-searching and surveying your professional network, you believe you have identified a strong candidate to serve as your professional mentor. That's great! But there's a catch: You also need to ensure that your schedules are compatible, that both of you can find consistent time to meet or communicate among all of your personal and professional responsibilities.

Chances are, your chosen mentor will have a very full schedule, as they likely are at a point in their career where they have significant responsibilities at work. Be respectful of this when approaching them about mentoring you, and try to find a system that works for both of you. This could mean coffee once a week in the afternoon, perhaps a monthly lunch date or even just a regular rhythm of emails or text messages.2 As long as you mutually agree on a pattern of communication that works for both of you, that respects your mentor's time as well as your own, you should be able to make the relationship work.

Look Beyond Your Field

Another way in which people often narrow their search unduly when choosing a mentor is by focusing exclusively on the field in which they currently work. Maybe there is someone in your network who has the C-suite position you desire in an industry different from your own. Or perhaps you have a friend who has spent time in management consulting, who has seen enough examples of career development and promotion to offer cogent advice on how to best position yourself.

Whatever the case, try to consider your potential professional mentor in terms of attributes that might make them the best suited candidate for the role. Oftentimes, basic business principles translate directly from industry to industry.4 So if you work in marketing, but you have a friend or acquaintance in finance whose work ethic and drive you admire greatly, don't rule them out simply because their day-to-day tasks look a bit different from yours.

Think Beyond an Individual

Finally, try to keep an open mind to the possibility that your ideal professional mentor might not even be just one mentor at all. It can be more helpful to think of your career mentorship as a "board of advisors" in which you draw advice and inspiration from a number of different people in your professional sphere, all of whom are committed to your development and success.5

A direct mentor-mentee relationship can be a lot to ask one extremely busy individual to commit to, after all. And by involving more successful, experienced voices in your mentorship process, you can gain the added bonus of diversifying the information you receive and broadening your perspective to multiple approaches.

The William & Mary Online MBA Can Guide Your Career

The Online MBA program from the Raymond A. Mason School of Business at William & Mary can connect you to talented professionals in countless fields who can help propel your career in an exciting new direction.

Learn more about the mentorship opportunities you could find among our renowned business faculty and your diverse and driven classmates at William & Mary, and revolutionize your career with an Online MBA today.

1. Retrieved on August 14, 2019, from entrepreneur.com/article/250936
2. Retrieved on August 14, 2019, from forbes.com/sites/bryancollinseurope/2019/02/12/looking-for-a-mentor-read-this-first/
3. Retrieved on August 14, 2019, from money.usnews.com/money/blogs/outside-voices-careers/articles/2018-09-05/choosing-between-a-mentor-and-a-career-coach
4. Retrieved on August 14, 2019, from fastcompany.com/3009726/feed-your-career-octopus-tips-for-finding-and-keeping-awesome-mentors
5. Retrieved on August 14, 2019, from cnbc.com/2019/01/02/career-advice-find-a-mentor-to-boost-your-career-in-2019.html