Looking for a Mentor

We all need role models to help get us through the challenges we face in the workplace and during our career. It’s finding someone who shares similar values to you and who you believe cares enough about your career. That is the challenge.

Finding mentors is easy. Finding the right mentor is harder. In the beginning of my career I really struggled to find the right people. Fast forward over 10 years and I now have loads of mentors. Mostly by accident and not in the way I expected.

I think there are a few things to consider.

Where to Start?

I’d say Ferris Buller was probably my first mentor as a child so that meme is a nod to that amazing film!

There’s an article in Forbes about the importance of female mentorship which is a topic in its own right but the message about mentoring and how to find one can also be applied more generally. If you’re looking for advice on how to find a mentor and why it’s important then that is definitely a good place to start.

There are also a number of mentoring programs across the resilience landscape to name a couple:

The Business Continuity Institute Mentoring Program

ISACA Mentor Program

Of course many businesses now have programs internally and your old university (if you went) might operate one as well with alumni. At least it’s a few places to start looking at anyway.

Manage your Expectations

I’ve spent the earliest part of my career looking for someone I could shadow, who I could take time to learn from and develop to become the best professional I could be. Looking back it’s been quite the romantic idea. Probably best to manage your expectations on what you should expect from a mentor.

For example, in the early days the most notable advice I have received from my mentors typically took the form of:

“Always look busy”

“Always know more than the person in front of you”

On reflection, not the golden nuggets of wisdom I was initially expecting. I guess this wasn’t bad advice. It is important to be prepared for any meeting and it is important to have a professional presence, which might for some include “looking busy”. However, at the time of receiving that advice I had this idealised view of “the experienced professional”. In the end most of the off-record advice I got just felt like everyone was simply blagging it. I quickly became disillusioned and frustrated because it didn’t align with my rose tinted glasses!

I initially found it difficult to find a mentor who I perceived wasn’t appearing to “fake it”. People who appeared to put on this professional, busy-body front (something I’ll be the first to admit I cannot do despite my best efforts) but actually often there is very little depth to what they are doing or saying. Talk about high expectations eh? I was so naïve!

The reality is imposter syndrome is a thing and by definition people are often pretending to perform and behave in a way that they believe they are not. Also “fake it ’till you make it” is a widely used quote as well. I’ve come to learn that there is definitely a corporate dance under the banner of “professionalism” that one needs to learn. However, starting out I felt a little let down by the gained wisdom of my experienced peers. On reflection I don’t think that was a fair judgement.

Mentor Alignment

As the earlier Forbes article actually points out, it is crucial that your chosen mentors who have similarities to you and your shared values. Otherwise, like any relationship, it doesn’t work out and you might become disheartened.

My first mentor was really great and good with personal challenges but not so hot on the professional practice guidance. They were considered a subject matter expert in their area at the time. When I was asked to develop a policy their exact words to me were:

“Here is a colleagues’ policy from another company – just change the name of the company to yours and you’re good to go”.

I felt really let down at the time but I learned a valuable lesson – a good person doesn’t equal good professional.

My next mentor followed a similar theme. They were very friendly and supportive. However, they seemed to get away with saying the right things at meetings and then making the right excuses for regularly not producing. I found this very frustrating because the energy and focus was all on appearance.

Once again – I walked away from that relationship feeling disappointed because our approach to work at that time did not align at all.

Both of my examples were mentors within my own departments which were often quite small and that might have perhaps been too close for comfort. Also in hindsight I had too higher expectations as to what they might bring to the table for me (based on my own expectations). On reflection their is undoubtedly an element of “political manoeuvrability” required when you have competing deadlines.

The reality is you shouldn’t expect too much from your mentor but also make sure they align to how you operate and match your values.

Advice is a Buffet – Take your Pick

Baz Luhrmann said:

“Be careful whose advice you buy, but, be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”

I believe one of the greatest balancing acts to achieve with having a mentor (I have admit I’ve gotten it wrong once or twice) is to only take the best bits of insight and guidance on offer from the mentor. Take an honest look at your abilities and skills and any gaps you feel you might have but do not underestimate your own judgement!

Some advice can be bad advice – pick what works for you

No One-Size Mentoring

By which I mean no one size fits all. There are far too many variables when considering different individuals with different needs, career aspirations, rates of development, availability of time etc. So I guarantee your experience will be different to mine. I guess I initially expected a very structured formal kind of interview situation held on a regular basis. However, I now know that mentoring can be much more relaxed and received as-required. You may not need to be mentored all the time but only when you reach those difficult challenges. For example, when working on a task that you have no experience in or perhaps you’re at a career crossroads and you need to know what options are available. As we all know these experiences are sporadic so we deal with them as they arise and they simply won’t fit in to the second Tuesday of every month with the same person.

A Few Summary Thoughts

You might want to consider when looking at prospective mentors:

  1. Someone with shared values and approach
  2. Consider mentors in other departments or organisations for a different perspective and to avoid being too close!
  3. Pick out the best bits of advice that work for you
  4. Look at your career path – Is the advice you’re receiving going to be of any value with your desired career path?
  5. Look at their career path – take a moment to consider what has motivated the individual in their career.
  6. Believe in you own feedback! – Self-Awareness is the very moment you no longer exclusively rely on the feedback and assessments of others, and begin to trust the candid assessments of your own performance. That doesn’t mean to say you should ignore sensible guidance! The resilience industry is so diverse and there is a lot to learn from those individuals who have genuinely seen and done things.