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.