By: Alicia Smyth
“If you ask any successful businessperson, they will always have had a great mentor at some point along the road.” – Sir Richard Branson
A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation to an eager group of students on finding a mentor. We discussed what a mentor is, how you find one, ways to make the ask, and important things to keep in mind. Mentoring is such an important topic and I don’t know a single person who could not benefit from the sage advice of a trusted, more experienced colleague or classmate. So…if you are a student or a professional (or both) and you don’t yet have a mentor, please read on.
What is a Mentor?
A mentor can be described as a trusted counselor who provides career guidance, advice related to work projects, or help getting through life’s challenges out of the goodness of their heart. A mentor is someone more experienced than you and typically an individual who sees more talent and aptitude in you than you might see in yourself. Oftentimes, mentors will provide opportunities that allow for you to build self-confidence and knowledge so that you also see your own potential.
Who Needs a Mentor?
You do! Everyone has to start somewhere and it’s much easier to navigate your career with a guide. Mentors provide wisdom and insights related to your career and your work that you may not have considered. They challenge you to improve and learn by asking hard questions. They can help open doors for you and advocate on your behalf. Many of the country’s most successful individuals will tell you that they attribute at least some of their success to the guidance they received from their mentors. Expanding on Sir Richard Branson’s quote above, he once told The Sun, “It’s always good to have a helping hand at the start. I wouldn’t have got anywhere in the airline industry without the mentorship of Sir Freddie Laker.”
What Do You Want in a Mentor?
The best mentors are individuals who, first and foremost, are open to mentoring. Additionally, it’s helpful if there is common ground that serves as the foundation for your mentoring relationship. It’s ideal to identify someone who is more experienced in an area for which you’d like to improve, though that is not a hard requirement. That said, common ground can be a given when based on career path. You also want to identify someone who will challenge you while also providing support when you need it. Ideally, your prospective mentor should be a great communicator and teacher who offers tools to help you figure things out on your own. It may seem like a tall order, and in some ways it is.
How Do You Find a Mentor?
Think about the people in your profession that you have met over the years…has anyone stood out for showing a genuine interest in you, your projects, your career progression, and/or your life? There are no formal rules to finding a mentor, but having an established rapport does make it easier to make an ask if needed. Some mentoring relationships happen naturally, but it’s important to keep in mind that relationships take time to develop – sometimes many months or years – and should be based on mutual trust and respect. If you can’t think of anyone who fits this description offhand, you may need to do some research to identify prospective mentors. Some sources include formal mentoring programs (e.g., Boeing Co-Pilot Program, NBAA Mentoring Network, etc.), LinkedIn, ERAU Alumni Relations, faculty, advisors, supervisors, executives, your personal network and/or the network of your family and friends, and even your peers (e.g., students who have completed internships, special projects of interest, served in leadership roles on campus, etc.).
How Do You Ask?
Establishing a mentoring relationship is not unlike dating in that it’s best if the mentor and mentee are compatible, have similar interests, and are willing to do the work to keep the relationship going. Also similar is that an easy to way start developing the relationship is to ask a prospective mentor to coffee. If distance makes this a challenge, perhaps an informational interview via phone is more appropriate to start. When you are ready to bring up the topic of mentoring, clearly describe the guidance you are seeking from the individual and share what value you bring to the relationship. Express your genuine interest in the individual. What is it about the individual and their core values that inspires you? Let them know. Give them time to think about it, communicate your commitment, and acknowledge and respect the individual’s time. Lastly, when the meeting is over, send a follow-up thank you and include any action items or next steps if appropriate.
Your Personal Board of Directors
It’s often said that you are the sum of the five people with which you spend the most time. Think about that. Do your closest friends challenge you to be a better person or do they distract you from your goals and ambitions? While I’m not here to tell you to ditch your friends, I’d like to encourage you to step outside your social circle and make some additional friends if the ones you have aren’t meeting the following needs:
- The Connector – someone who knows many people can can help you establish relationships
- The Information Powerhouse – someone who has their finger on the pulse of trends and predictions in your field of study
- The Influencer – a thought-leader who inspires you
- The Mentor – a coach and guide
- The Sponsor – someone in your field who will advocate on your behalf, help you identify opportunities, and open doors for you
For some, a mentor may also serve as a sponsor, but at times those individuals may be different. By the time you are a few years into your career, you should have a firmly established Personal Board of Directors. These are the individuals you go to when you are faced with ethical dilemmas, difficult situations, or just need support of some form. I have a Personal Board of Directors and I can say with 100% certainty that I would not be who I am today without them.
Keep in Mind
You can Google “mentoring” and come up with dozens of search results. There is no shortage of articles out there and advice varies from person to person. I want to leave you with some final thoughts to keep in mind as you start exploring your options. Feel free to do additional research. Listen to TedTalks, watch YouTube videos, check out professional associations, talk to professors, seek advice. The very act of exploring may uncover a potential mentor. They are everywhere.
- Relationship building takes time and consistency
- Always follow through and follow up
- It is okay to have multiple mentors – consider your Personal Board of Directors
- Mentoring is a give and take relationship; make sure you are giving back whenever possible
- Mentoring can be transactional (on-off) or run the span of your career
- Not every mentoring relationship is a good fit; some may run their course or end abruptly
- Keep in mind that your mentor is a volunteer and a human being (likely a very busy one at that)
- Take responsibility for your own learning
- Be willing to take risks and leave your comfort zone at your mentor’s urging
- Be flexible, willing to learn, and open to constructive feedback
- Your mentoring relationship is completely driven by you
During my recent presentation, a student asked me what happens when you no longer need a mentor. My response? That will never happen! We all need support and guidance from people who have more experience than us in order to be successful. Even Yoda had a mentor.
- Three Famous Billionaire Entrepreneurs and Their Mentors
- The Role of Mentoring in the Aviation Industry
- Aviation Mentoring Advice & Resource Reference List
- Please Don’t Ask Someone to Mentor You
- 9 Tips for Finding – and Getting – the Perfect Mentor
Alicia Smyth is the Executive Director of Career Services at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach campus. During her 20 years at Embry-Riddle, Alicia has worked primarily in Career Services at the Daytona Beach campus and has also served in leadership roles with Worldwide Career Services, Prescott Career Services and University Development Services. Alicia earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Florida and a Master of Arts in Student Personnel Administration in Higher Education from the University of Central Florida. She is a former president of the Florida Association of Colleges & Employers and served on the board in various roles from 2010-2018. Alicia served as the 2017-19 Director of Communications and Marketing on the Southern Association of Colleges & Employers Board and is now the 2019-21 Director of Targeted Knowledge Groups. In 2019, Alicia was a member of the NACE Competency Symposium Planning Committee. She is a 2012 recipient of the FloridaACE President’s Award, 2017 recipient of the SoACE President’s Award, and member of the NACE Management Leadership Institute Class of 2019. Connect with Alicia on Twitter or Instagram at @asmyth_erau or through LinkedIn.