Finding a mentor doesn’t have to be awkward
I remember my first two mentors distinctly. They came within months of one another at a time I most needed some new perspectives. First was Mr. Rainsforth, a high school teacher who taught Automotive, a grade ten elective I took for something different. As a result of his desire to acknowledge my strengths when no one else could see them, I ended up taking three years of Automotive with him and remember his words whenever I question my strengths. Next came Eric, a youth program leader at the YMCA who had the ability to connect with teens with empathy, listening and challenge who showed me a love for hiking, camping and introduced me to sport in the outdoors and how to push and challenge myself.
While those mentors showed up to help me learn in my personal life, I was fortunate that it didn’t end there. I’ve been blessed over my personal and professional life from that moment to have dozens of mentors if not more who have contributed to my professional success but also my learning and self-awareness. Those mentors have included university professors, business leaders, peers, coaches, and friends. Some of them I’ve known well and some of them I never hardly knew but they invested in me from a one-hour lunch or coffee to deeper relationships that have lasted many years. Occasionally they’ve been formal relationships and most of the time they were informal mentors and champions. For example, Dr. Melanie Peacock was a professor whom I stayed in touch with and continued to cheer me on over the years and share her experiences and insights with me. She nominated me for an alumni award for which I was recognized, and it wouldn’t have happened without her belief in me and her nomination.
It’s not just aspiring or new leaders who benefit from mentors and need to cultivate mentorship. I find the most senior leaders I work with find themselves with a gap in mentorship and have often surpassed many of their mentors in professional achievement and find themselves with a gap in this area of their support network. So how do aspiring and seasoned leaders find and develop mentor relationships?
Become a mentor. When you give your time to others, you’ll find support will become easier to find. Formally and informally mentor others and get to know other participants in formal leadership programs beyond your mentorship match.
Create a personal org chart. Who are the different departments you need around you to be supported. You’ll be surprised to see how many informal mentors may be on your team already and you’ll be able to see the gaps to be filled. I recommend you have mentors who are both male and female, your age, older, younger, in your industry in similar roles, in your industry in more senior roles or with a larger scope, in other industries and a similar role or same industry but different functional role. The more senior you are in your career, the more mentorship matters in helping you be resilient and navigate challenges where there are no right answers.
Ask for a conversation. If there is someone you find could give you new perspective, ask for a conversation. You don’t need to ask them to be a mentor, but you do need to ask for a conversation. In fact, I normally advise against asking someone to be a mentor, just ask them to have a conversation and you can ask for a next conversation if the first one goes well and creates value for you.
Hire support. Some mentors are paid. As a professional coach, I’ve hired a number of coaches and other professionals over time to mentor me in my professional development, business challenges and personal development.
Look for diverse mentors. Some mentors can support you on niche challenges and perspectives while others may be broader in their support. You need a wide range of mentors.
Target people you’d like to learn from. Ask others who you might benefit from connecting with and do your own research through LinkedIn or other means to identify people you’d like to have a conversation with.
Reach out. When you face challenges, reach out to your mentors for perspective, questions, conversation and support. Cultivating the relationship means being vulnerable and reaching out for their ideas, perspective, and support.
In the spirit of International Women’s Day this month, I’d be remiss not to address mentorship for women leaders. There are many formal mentorship programs and networks for women leaders and I encourage you to take advantage of them yet it’s not sufficient for the support any leader needs for success. I urge you to take the risk and cultivate your own informal mentors that are both men and women ahead of you in their career path and peer mentors too.
Finding mentors doesn’t have to be awkward, in fact the best mentors happen naturally, and you can initiate the relationship.