November 30, 2012 

Tips for a Successful Mentoring Relationship

Chemistry, Intent and Communication

Mentoring tips  

People have long been drawing on experiential learning passed on from those who, if not older, are certainly wiser. And yet, without a formal program in place, many professionals seeking informed guidance on how to most prudently proceed along the career path – or perhaps select a new one – often find themselves at a loss.

Feeling lost, according to Linda O’Neill and Mona Das, is a good sign that you’re ready for a mentor.

Both speak from experience on each side of the mentoring equation. Before launching O’Neill Coaching and Consulting, O’Neill rose through the ranks of the high-tech PR industry for 25 years, 19 of which were spent working with Microsoft. Das has successfully run her own mortgage business in Washington and Oregon through the past eight economically tumultuous years and recently earned an MBA with an emphasis in sustainable business.

Different backgrounds, to be sure, but both O’Neill and Das believe that finding a good mentor – and making the most of the relationship – can be accomplished by following guidelines that draw heavily from the realm of common sense.

Set your own course. Some mentoring relationships are more long-term and philosophical and may provide a comfortable venue for delving into issues such as career management, achieving work-life balance and bigger, broader leadership challenges. Others – such as a young entrepreneur seeking a mentor with the IPO experience he lacks – revolve around competencies.

“You need to be clear on what you want to get out of it,” Das says. “Either way have your radar on because so much of it is about chemistry and a good fit. It’s a very intimate relationship.”

Find the hidden mentor. In addition to the intimacy factor – or perhaps in conjunction with it – Das says that mentoring relationships are often so informal and natural that they’re not immediately noticeable. “Sometimes you don’t even know you’re mentoring someone,” she says. And sometimes the mentee doesn’t even realize they are being mentored.

Shortly after earning what she calls her “green MBA,” Das joined Blue Earth Network, a consulting firm focused on sustainability. “There were four or five of us working on sustainability projects individually, but by working together we can go after bigger projects,” she says.

Whether they know it or not, she considers many of her colleagues her sustainability mentors. Many of them taught in the MBA program, and since she was active as a student they already knew her and the value she could bring to their organization.

But for those without pre-established relationships to build on, Das advises remembering that almost everyone appreciates feeling valued. “Tell them you value their wisdom and that you’d like to buy them a cup of coffee and pick their brain,” she says.

Prepare, prepare, prepare some more. Before you sit down in person with a potential mentor, Das advises doing a little online stalking to learn something very specific about the prospective mentor that can be referenced during the conversation as a way of showing you’ve invested some time and effort. Also, bring questions about the person’s career, how it started, how it could have progressed differently, accomplishments and regrets.

“Get them to connect their emotions with their career,” Das says. “End the meeting by asking who else the person thinks you should talk to, and be prepared to write your own introduction that they can forward.”

Ask. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” says Das, who considers herself a connector.

O’Neill also thinks it’s important to not be intimidated when approaching someone for guidance. “If you’re shy about it, just name it,” she says. “Say ‘I feel really awkward about asking you to be my mentor, but I really admire how you do X, Y and Z.’”

Look for learning opportunities everywhere, at every level. One of the most common misperceptions about mentoring, O’Neill says, is that the mentor needs to have more seniority and authority than the person being mentored.

“You learn from everyone, not just those with more experience than you,” she says.

Seek the kind of insight you need. As a PR executive, O’Neill says that at one point she had two mentors: One had a way of approaching relationships that she admired, while the other had an unparalleled insight into the corporate culture. Most importantly, both mentors had a level of knowledge and expertise that O’Neill felt she herself was lacking at the time.

Know when to move on. Some mentoring relationships are better than others, so it’s important to acknowledge red flags when they appear. O’Neill says that her mission as an executive coach is to help her clients increase awareness, deepen learning and then move forward into action. If your relationship with your mentor doesn’t address these areas, you may need to find a new mentor.

“A mentor’s job is not to tell you what to do,” she says. “Pushing opinions on you is not mentoring. You want to know what they think, but they shouldn’t be telling you what to do. It shouldn’t grow into a dependency where you’re reluctant to make a move without checking in with your mentor.”

Communicate. Every tip shared by O’Neill and Das comes with the following postscript: A mentoring relationship is a relationship. More than any other factor, relationships fail or succeed based on communication. So communicate. A lot.

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