I read The Odyssey at school and the story has stuck with me as being one of my favourite pieces of Classical literature. In the book, Mentor
the old man who became a kind of father figure to Telemachus, while his father Odysseus was off to the Trojan War. Mentor provided guidance to the young man, and so did the goddess Athena who appeared to Telemachus disguised as Mentor. Greek stories can get complicated, but suffice to say that today we use the term ‘mentor’ to mean someone who offers their knowledge and expertise to others, often in the workplace.
Formal mentoring schemes in the workplace seem to be less common these days – I don’t have a reference for that, it’s just a feeling based on my experiences and talking to younger project managers and people in my industry. Maybe it’s a reaction to challenging economic times and something that teams feel that they can cut back on. However, whether you have a formal mentoring scheme accessible to you in your organization or not, you can still set up an informal agreement with a senior manager to be your mentor.
Look for people you think you would get on with who are higher up the organization than you. Ideally they need to have the time to commit to meeting you once a month, but that can be over lunch or coffee so it doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment.
Here are 5 reasons why a mentor at work can help improve your career and boost your skills.
1. They Have A Network
Your mentor will be someone more senior in the organization than you. Aim to find someone at your manager’s level or the next level up: this will ensure that they have the experience to share with you and that they have a different circle of influence to you.
Your mentor has a network that can be incredibly useful to you. They know people that you don’t and that means they’ll probably know someone who can help with your problem even if they can’t help themselves.
They can also give you advice about those people. For example, let’s say you re attending a board meeting and you are going to meet two directors whom you haven’t worked with before. Your mentor might know them, or know of them to a greater extent to you. They can give you some tips about their working styles or just make you feel more confident about that initial meeting.
2. They Are Independent
There’s a reason why your mentor is not your line manager. You’ll feel more comfortable opening up to someone who isn’t going to judge you or hold that conversation against you in your next performance review.
A mentor should be independent. They don’t even work in your department. They have a different view of your team and they aren’t caught up in the office politics that might embroil you and your boss. This lets them be totally open and honest and gives you a fresh perspective on your particular challenges.
3. They Listen
Managers might not have the time to listen. You might not want to talk to them about your concerns anyway. Your family might listen but not be able to relate to what you are talking about. Mentors listen, because that’s what they do, and more importantly you know that they’ll get what it is you are talking about.
You can talk to them about ethical dilemmas at work or complain about the extra work your manager has just given you. You can use them as a sounding board for testing out difficult conversations with your colleagues, or to help you think through what you might say to someone in your next project meeting. Listening is an underrated skill. Use them to listen to you!
4. They Help You Learn
A mentor can help you discover your skills. They don’t offer you formal training, although they could help you understand what sort of formal training would be best for you at this stage in your career.
They help you learn because they know what you don’t: they’ve got the experience and they’ve earned their place at the table through hard work. Assuming you’ve chosen a good mentor, their skills are likely to be in areas similar to yours, but they’ve developed them over a longer period of time.
Use their expertise by asking for it. They will have informal, practical guidance based on their own career journey but also tangible things that you can ask for, such as templates. They may have worked on a project similar to yours in the past and developed a set of assets that you could “borrow” to save you reinventing the wheel.
5. They Know About Jobs
You might not want to tell you line manager that you are thinking of taking a new job. You might not be ready to share your career goals with them, but you can talk to your mentor about them. They know what you want to do and what you are capable of, so they are a good person to talk to about your next move.
And the best thing is that your mentor might be able to point out jobs that you weren’t even aware of. They can tap into their network and are likely to be aware of opportunities in other teams or in other areas of the business that would suit you skills. Your mentor might turn into your boss after that if the vacancy is in their own team, but cross that bridge when you come to it!
These 5 reasons to get a mentor at work have hopefully convinced you to start looking out for one. Maynard Webb, writing in Forbes, has some tips for how to find a mentor so that’s a good starting point.
Remember that the mentor you need now isn’t going to be the same as the mentor you need in the future. As your own career grows, you do more training and learn more skills, so you might have to ‘upgrade’ your mentor too. That’s fine: it’s important to remember that these relationships aren’t forever and to move on gracefully as the time comes.