The desire to connect on this level has followed me through my various iterations of career, from a full-time job in a company, to my stay-at-home period, and is still ever present as I manage the work-from-home scenario.
This is certainly not a need that is unique to me. Anyone who’s worked in a professional world in some capacity has undoubtedly had an opportunity to engage in and benefit from these kinds of conversations. The media is awash with articles about the benefits of formal mentor relationships, and although they will not always put you on the direct trajectory to the corner office, most of us know that having one or two strong formal relationships in place at the office are a good idea (whether the corner office is something you desire or not).
So, it follows that if having a mentor is so beneficial, then we should be trying to establish these relationships when we embark on our career journey. But, where? And how do we target the right people?
In a large organization, the opportunities can seem endless. You may not need to lift you head far beyond your desk. In fact, often time, a mentor will find you.
In my 20s, working in a company of 3000 plus employees, I had access to a cadre of experienced colleagues who were eager to guide me. My first boss was highly conscientious and worked hard to ensure that everyone who reported to her was happy in their career path. She guided me day-to-day through hands-on learning, touching base frequently on projects, providing constructive feedback and stretching me to build more technical skill. She also created a framework for on-going discussions about my career, having monthly lunch meetings where we could talk about broader concerns and the visions I had for my long-term career at the organization.
She was someone that I liked and respected, and I considered myself lucky to have her in my corner. This may not be everyone’s experience, but it is likely that you too at some point have worked closely with a boss or a colleague whom you wanted to learn from.
At the same time in my career, I had another formal mentor. The organization I worked at valued career development, and frequently rolled out programs – such as the mentor program -- that helped its employees grow professionally. My mentor was a senior executive from another area. Every month we would meet to discuss the broader organization and he would give me insights into different areas, and tried to help me figure out my next move.
Like with my boss, I enjoyed the structured nature of these meetings. Both of these colleagues, whom I greatly respected for their expertise, invested in me by establishing the structure to help me succeed. Although years later, my career took a very different turn, for the period of time that I worked closely with my mentors, I benefitted greatly from their objective advice and was motivated to learn and grow.
These relationships taught me the importance of having someone in your corner as you navigate your career trajectory.
Since then, I’ve thought sporadically about this issue. I no longer work for a large organization. Now that I work on my own, these types of relationships and conversations are much harder to come by. I do not have a formal mentor. It is completely up to me to reach out to someone who’ll offer objective advice and guidance.
The comfortable cocoon of an organization with its hierarchy of bosses and mentors is gone. As any “solopreneur”, or independent business owner, I have to find my own way.
This thought has been coming and going for a few days. Then, one day last week I received a message from a dear old friend. I’ll call her L. These days we touch base infrequently. If I recall correctly, the last time was months ago. And when we do talk or see each other, the conversation usually drifts to family and kids.
Happy to hear L’s voice, I listened to her message. She said she was calling to say hi and also to chat about career stuff.
We’ve now spoken twice, at length, about a dilemma she is having at work. We made plans to speak again soon. I did what I do in all of my coaching sessions – I listened, asked questions to better understand the situation, and when asked, provided objective advice. And then, it hit me.
Wasn’t this the kind of mentor conversation I’ve been thinking about?
I feel grateful for the trust and respect that L showed me by reaching out. But, I also feel grateful for the lesson learned in our exchange.
Somehow, I’ve forgotten the underlying principle of mentorship. Was it the kind of formal relationship I’ve been reminiscing about in my head? Was a mentor necessarily someone who worked inside the walls of a big organization? Did it have to be a colleague who had established him/herself in the same industry?
When you type in “mentor” into the on-line dictionary, a definition pops up. A mentor is an experienced and trusted advisor. And then, an example: “he was her friend and mentor until his death in 1915”.
Thank you Webster’s. And thank you for the phone call, L. Next time, I need to chat about my career, I won’t hesitate to call you – my good friend – whom I trust and respect deeply – for a bit of mentoring and guidance.