We recently attended a conference themed around inclusion in Higher Education. As students and staff shared their academic and career success stories, a common theme rang through their talks – they all attributed their ‘big break’ to having a mentor. We realised that mentorship was not just an important but an essential ingredient for career success. In this article, Amara discusses how mentoring can make a difference in your journey as an aspiring professional.
Mentorship can be defined as a personal development relationship where a more experienced and knowledgeable person (mentor) teaches or guides a less knowledgeable or experienced person (mentee). A mentor shares their knowledge, experience and contacts with their mentee; empowering the mentee to achieve their career goals. Mentors lead, motivate, inspire, teach and sometimes coach their mentees. If you read autobiographies of people who have made noteworthy achievements, a mentor’s contribution is usually gratefully acknowledged. Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group noted that mentorship could be ‘the missing link between a promising businessperson and a successful one.’ Do you have a mentor? Do you think you need one?
What the view like where you are? – The most important thing my mentors share with me is the benefit of their experience. A mentor has been where you are. This is where I separate the terms ‘coach’ and ‘mentor’. A coach does not necessarily need to have your personal experience but a mentor does. A mentor has been ‘in your shoes.’ A career mentor has been in your role, dealt with that issue you’re struggling with, overcome that problem that is currently brewing or failed at a task that is coming up ahead. A mentorship relationship is important because you are given a unique leveraging opportunity to learn from someone else’s knowledge. You can learn from their success as well as their mistakes. By their position of being above you on the career ladder, they have a different view.
A mentor can have a panoramic view where we are tunnel visioned.
The view does matter – mentors can see what is coming ahead of you but crucially, they can also see your blind spots. The decision to undertake a PhD has turned out to be an important turning point in my life/career because it set me on a path which has led to places I never thought possible. My mentor encouraged me to go for a PhD. He saw potential in a bright, shy, confused final year undergraduate student – something I had not even seen in myself. I had many ‘teachers’ but he was a mentor. So I ask again, what can you see?
Working hard is essential but is it enough to get you where you want to go? – A few years ago, I applied (unsuccessfully) for a consultancy. I thought I had sent in an awesome CV, personal statement and cover letter but I (apparently) hadn’t done enough to get my foot in. Within 12 months, I was contacted by the same institution to do the same work with them. How? They had been disappointed with the individual they went with and I had a mentor who had a good relationship with the institution put in a good word. Someone who knew my abilities, skills and expertise connected me with an organisation that could benefit from what I had to offer. In today’s interconnected world, everything (well almost) rises and falls on relationships.
I am a hard worker. I believe in putting in the work and being enthusiastic about achieving my career goals but I have learnt that it is not just cliché that ‘who you know – and who knows you – is as important as what you know’ in getting where I want to be professionally. A mentor can open doors that you cannot get through on your own simply because you have not had the time or opportunity to develop key relationships.
Who is your mentor? – Anyone who has something to teach you and is interested in doing so. You can have a mentor for a season or for a lifetime. It is important you recognise potential mentors so you don’t miss out on personal or professional development opportunities. I talk to a lot of frustrated PhD candidates who are angry because their PhD supervisor is unwilling or unable to mentor them. Ever thought about a postdoc in your Department instead? Or a former PhD student who is now in industry. It can be difficult for academics to mentor PhD candidates for non-academic careers when they have been in academia for all of their professional life. Maybe your line manager isn’t interested, so look for someone else! A mentor does not always need to be in a senior position; they could simply have been in the organisation longer. A mentor might not be the person you get on the most with at work but they should be someone who you aspire to be like in whatever area you need mentoring in. If anything, you can learn from their areas of weakness as ‘how not to do’ something. Mentoring is a relationship with another person. Your mentor is human and will have strengths and weaknesses so bear that in mind as you make your choice.
How do I get mentored? – Be clear what you want from your mentor and then start developing productive relationships. I previously discussed the importance of using social media as a networking tool. You cannot ask a stranger to be your mentor. Connect first and then nurture the relationship. Find out if there are mentorship schemes you can subscribe to or in your organisation and join them. Universities are now developing their student mentor schemes to help first years with their transition into Higher Education. Read autobiographies of successful people and keep track of what they do. Want to start or grow your business? Read about what people who have accomplished your dream have to say about how they did. Continue to be a part of The Hub and check out our ‘The Professionals’ section. Don’t be put off by negative responses. Keep at it.
Symbiosis and synergy not parasitism – Before approaching someone to ask if they will mentor you, ask yourself what you are bringing to the table. Mentoring requires a lot of effort from the mentor. They will be investing their time in you, they will be introducing you to their contacts – their reputation being on the line if you mess up! If your only interest is getting all you can from them to climb that career ladder as fast as you can, that is a parasitic relationship – where only
the parasite you benefits. So bring something to the table. What can you do for your mentor? Do they have a problem you can help them solve? What are their interests? Can you offer your time or skills to help them accomplish their own goals? A wise man told me recently that every leader, manager and mentor loves someone who removes not adds to their burden.
What about you? Who are you mentoring?
Be humble and willing to learn. A mentoring relationship can just be that extra you need in your journey as an aspiring professional. If you enjoyed this article, look out for Part II and share, comment and connect.