From the November 2003 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

A Few Good Mentors

Sharing wisdom is a time-honored way to help others succeed. Here are some ways to increase the rewards of mentoring

Once you say goodbye to your college advisor, mentoring be-comes catch-as-catch-can. Unless you land at a company where someone takes an interest in helping your career, you may be left to blunder along alone.

A good mentor can literally change your life. Early in my career, a mentor at Georgetown University steered me out of graduate studies in French theater by suggesting that perhaps I was really meant to be a therapist. The moment he said this, I realized that therapy was the right path for me.

I'm convinced that the world could use more good mentors. If you embark on this process, be aware of some of the problems you may encounter. Here are a few of them, and some solutions.

I was inspired to become a financial advisor by a well-known "big shot" in the business. I'd love to ask this guy if he would be willing to teach and guide me as I start my own career, but I'm afraid he may be too busy to spare any time on a newbie. Should I approach him? And if so, how? Don't hesitate a moment longer. I'd begin by writing him a letter or e-mail in which you tell him of your admiration for his work. Give him a sense of who you are and why he has been influential in your life.

If he responds, ask if you may meet him for lunch or coffee to discuss some questions you've been wondering about. (Be prepared to extend this invitation by phone if there's no answer to your letter.)

Assuming the chemistry seems right when you get together, find out if he would be open to some sort of mentoring relationship. Whether or not he says yes, he will almost certainly feel flattered by your request.

If he is too busy or not interested in mentoring, don't let the turndown crush you. It's likely that he will still want to help you in some way. Perhaps he can suggest someone else who might meet your needs for guidance and support.

Remember, your admiration for this advisor doesn't automatically make him the best mentor for you. A good relationship depends as much on emotional compatibility as on intellectual respect. Be open to various forms of mentoring, and don't give up on your quest.

I am mentoring a young trainee who is a real slacker. He's constantly taking time off to play golf or go boating without bothering to stay accessible to his clients. How can I get him to change his behavior without dictating to him or coming across as a old fogy? You raise a good point: A mentor should help people make better decisions, not make the decisions for them.

I think you can communicate your message by choosing a relaxed time to sit down with him. Begin with a "warm start" by telling him something he's doing well. You could then ask how he likes working at the firm, so you can see how motivated he is about improving his performance. Compliment him on the fact that he has interests outside of work, and go right on to say that, nonetheless, it's important that he be at work or available to his clients at least a certain number of hours a day, and a certain number of days a week.

Avoid general recommendations like "be more committed" or "care more about the job," since you really have no idea how committed he is or how much he cares. Focus instead on the specific behavioral changes you expect. Give him an opportunity to react to your advice in this meeting, or in a follow-up discussion after he's had time to think. Ideally, you will soon begin to see in his work behavior some evidence of the modifications you suggested.

You might also consider asking him how he feels about the ways you and others in the firm work. If he thinks you are all workaholics who need to lighten up and smell the roses, you'll know more about the depth of his resistance to changing his behavior. You can then decide whether you feel able to accept him as is, or should encourage him to find a company where the style is more conducive to his laid-back approach.

I was excited when my firm set up a mentor program, but they've assigned me to an older woman who is very critical about everything I do. There is another person in the firm who would probably be a much better mentor for me. However, I don't want to jeopardize my career or create antagonism at work over this incompatibility. Should I request a change, or keep quiet? First, let me ask you a question. Do you feel you've tried your best to make the current relationship work? It may take a bit of courage, but I'd suggest that you level with your mentor about your need for more positive feedback.

Find a gentle way to explain that sharp negative criticism erodes your confidence. It's possible that she thinks you have been expecting a mentor to talk tough. By being honest and making yourself vulnerable to her, you may help her open up to a more constructive relationship.

That being said, where is it written that you can have only one mentor at a time? I think it's fine to also seek guidance from the person you find more simpatico, though you should take care not to bad-mouth your original mentor. This way, no matter whether your first relationship improves, breaks up, or simply becomes less important to your career, you will be more likely to have the help you need to move forward.

I thought I would like the independence of working on my own, and I do, but now and then I feel isolated. How can I find kindred spirits from whom I can learn and with whom I can discuss difficult problems? First, determine if there are other advisors in your area whom you like and feel comfortable with. Call or e-mail them to see if they have similar needs. If one or two respond, consider meeting individually to mentor each other. A larger group might get together every month at someone's home or a restaurant to provide the interaction and learning you crave. Leaderless groups like this can go on for years and years, developing creative brainstorming ability and tremendous camaraderie.

I belong to a leaderless group that has met monthly for the last 17 years to talk about the challenges of couples relationships. In my profession, we seek out supervisors to discuss difficult cases, or get together one-on-one with a peer to share feedback about our more challenging clients.

There's really no substitute for ongoing contact with colleagues from whom you can learn and with whom you can share your own wisdom. Good luck in finding your own forum to combat isolation!

Some days I think I should quit financial planning; other days I'm sure it's just temporary burnout. How can I figure out what to do? Do I need a therapist? When you're bogged down in this kind of uncertainty, I think the mentoring of a good business coach or life coach can be helpful in getting unstuck.

Unlike therapists, coaches are relatively goal-oriented, short-term-focused, and proactive. A good coach will help you "hear yourself" and take action that makes you feel better about yourself and your work life, whether or not you decide to leave the planning field.

Consider asking your friends and colleagues for a referral. If you can't find a coach that way, the International Coach Federation (www.coachfederation.org) may be able to connect you with one. Incidentally, your coach need not live nearby. Many people have established successful relationships through phone or e-mail.

In weekly sessions, you can explore your thoughts, feelings, goals, and options with your coach. If once a week isn't often or affordable enough, you might also ask a friend to serve as a sounding board. Even friends outside the field can be good mentors, especially if they have changed careers or found ways to revitalize a wearisome career.

Just take care to choose someone you like and trust and who doesn't have an ax to grind. Folks who made a similar decision about a planning career in the past, or who will be affected by your choice now, often have a vested interest in your choosing their solution, not your own.

A young fellow in our firm has a lot of useful knowledge about marketing, an area I'd like to be stronger in. I've considered asking him to mentor me, but am concerned that I'm too old for this kind of relationship. Even if that's not the case, how well would it work to be mentored by someone 25 years younger than me? Any advice? I believe you're never too old to learn something new. In fact, studies show that continued mental stimulation helps prevent senility. (Not that you necessarily need to worry about that just yet!)

So if you want to learn from this younger colleague, by all means go for it. Take him out for coffee and ask if he will share his know-how with you. I wager he will admire your eagerness to keep learning, as well as your openness in seeking knowledge from someone who is younger than you. Give yourself credit for not being too proud or too competitive to avail yourself of his expertise. I hope you will enjoy this mentoring relationship to the hilt.

At the same time, consider whether you should be taking steps to pass along your own accrued wisdom. If you are hesitant to serve as a mentor to someone else, you might move forward gradually by teaching a continuing education course, or doing some kind of community service work that allows others to benefit from your experience.

Whether you are on the giving or receiving end of a mentoring relationship, it can be one of your most fulfilling experiences. Mentoring or being mentored keeps you open to change and growth, can enhance your self-esteem, and leads to more resilience and success in your professional and personal life.

In a business where work sometimes feels thankless and clients may be more vocal with blame than with praise, a mentor relationship can help protect you from the risk of discouragement or burnout. Mentoring others, or being willing to be mentored, also gives you creative new tools you can use with clients who likewise need to learn--or who may have something to teach you.

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