Regardless of where you are in your career, having a mentor is one of the best things you can do to advance yourself.
I’m very passionate about mentorship. As a distinguished engineer, being a mentor is an important part of my role. And as a Black woman in tech, being a mentor is an opportunity to help other women and underrepresented minorities have an easier journey than I did.
Early in my career, there were definitely times when I felt alone and frustrated. I recall wishing there was someone that I could talk to who understood my trials and tribulations. I’d talk to family and friends but they didn’t understand the nuances of being an engineer. And while I could talk with my manager, there were times when they were the person I needed to discuss!
I’d heard the term ‘mentor’ but never really understood what a mentor was or how to find one. And it turns out I wasn’t alone. Fast forward to today and I speak with a lot of people who’ve never had a mentor. I’m often asked how to find one and what to expect from the relationship.
First and foremost, being a mentee means putting in work. A mentor should help you push past your boundaries and grow, and growth takes work. Here I’m sharing the work you should expect going into the relationship. You can think of these as the five steps to becoming a great mentee:
1. Identify your goals and opportunities for improvement
Before you start working with a mentor, you should spend some time figuring out your long-term and short-term goals. Think about the roadblocks you face at work, both real and perceived. Reflect on any opportunities for improvement. Think about the gaps you’ve self-identified as well as areas other people, such as your manager, might have suggested during your review cycle.
Examples of goals may be to obtain a promotion, enter into a new line of work, or get more exposure outside of your immediate team. Examples of areas of development could include public speaking, advocating for yourself, or conflict resolution.
2. Identify people you respect and would like mentorship from
Next it’s time to choose your mentor. Think about people who’ve already attained the goals on your list. Don’t be afraid to ask someone you admire or want to emulate to be your mentor. If you’re reaching out to someone you don’t already have a relationship with, be sure to mention why you’d like them to be your mentor and share some of the goals you’re hoping they can help you achieve.
3. Be open and honest with your mentor
Being in a mentorship relationship is just that: a relationship. It’s important to give the relationship enough time to grow. Come to the first few meetings prepared with some icebreaker questions and get to know your mentor on a personal level. What hobbies do they enjoy outside of work? Where have they traveled to or want to travel to? What’s their favorite food? One of the most important requirements in a mentorship relationship is trust, and getting to know them as a person will help to build it. Once this trust is established, you’ll find it much easier to be an open book with your mentor. That said, not all relationships are successful. If it doesn’t feel right after giving it a chance, don’t force it.
4. Be open to your mentor’s feedback
While your mentor should be in your corner, there are going to be times when they also need to give you feedback or advice you might not want to hear. Approach their feedback with humility and an open mind. Try not to get defensive, but instead recognize that perhaps a different outlook can be the catalyst to growth.
5. Do the homework and follow the suggestions your mentor gives you
Once you’ve discussed your goals and/or challenges with your mentor, be prepared to do the homework they assign you. Homework can take many forms. It might be trying a new approach in meetings, taking some time for self-reflection, or even applying for a new job. Whatever it is, be sure to give it a try, and report back to your mentor on the outcome(s).
Regardless of where you are in your career, having a mentor is one of the best things you can do to advance yourself. Your title is never too low or too high to have a mentor – or be a mentor for that matter. There will come a day when you’re on the receiving end of an email requesting your mentorship. So when that day comes, remember to pay it forward.