Mentors and Networking: Getting Help for Getting Ahead

Two young women sitting togetherA truth universally acknowledged by the people I work with in therapy is that no formal education program can prepare a person for the actual day-to-day tasks of a job. When it comes to getting really good at the job or getting ahead, the path becomes that much harder to find—without help, that is.

In today’s competitive job market, many new college graduates will start their careers at small businesses or companies. While small businesses offer the opportunity to gain diverse experience and prove your skills, they do not usually have well-established career ladders. Even Fortune 500 companies that traditionally offered formal organizational development and career management programs have cut back in recent years. Perhaps more than ever, the importance of cultivating connections and mentors cannot be overstated.

Mentoring might sound old fashioned, perhaps calling to mind visions of silly organizational development programs gone awry. A major drawback of formal mentoring programs of the past is they often seemed a lot like a year-long version of Secret Santa, with meetings instead of cheap gifts. A junior employee would be “matched” with a senior employee and they would meet periodically in the hope that some sort of career magic would rub off.

Generally, mentors and mentees tend to have the most powerful connections when they choose each other organically. Also, according to researchers such as Ellen Ensher and Susan Murphy, co-authors of Power Mentoring, the idea of mentoring being a one-on-one relationship is passé. Mentoring is about developing a range of useful relationships to help achieve your goals. It is worth noting that Kathy Kram, who wrote THE book on mentoring in organizations, recently observed that encouraging young professionals to cultivate a network of expertise is more effective for all involved than focusing on one senior person as a resource.

Ten to 20 years ago, mentoring was something women and other minorities in the workplace used as an equalizer. Thanks to progress (albeit incomplete and still inadequate) that has been made in terms of access to equal opportunity, these relationships are less about gaining acceptance by those in power and more about mastering the skills needed to move ahead. When acceptance by others in power is the primary pathway, all you need is someone with influence to believe in you and advocate on your behalf. Acquiring skills and other beneficial connections is a bit more complicated.

Here are a few tips to help you seize opportunities for mentoring:

  • Let go of the traditional model of waiting for someone older to take you under his or her wing and show you how to do everything. If someone is doing something you admire, be proactive and approach that person with any questions you have.
  • Know yourself and your goals.
  • Acknowledge and own your strengths and abilities, and be honest about what you need to learn. Think about who can help you fill gaps in your knowledge.

Our mentors are not always the people we picture when the word comes to mind. It’s possible that you know someone whose professional life is a mess, but he or she is a terrific salesperson and you really need to improve your sales skills. Capitalize on that connection! Find out what is working for him or her and use it.

The same can be said for people you know who have amazing personal relationships, but may not be where you would like to be professionally. All you need to do is be a skills sponge; you don’t need to understand why other areas of a person’s life may be neglected. Plus, by specifically choosing someone to learn from, you are validating that person’s abilities—and that is one of the best gifts you can give.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Amy Armstrong, MS, NCC, MCC, LPC, Career Counseling Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Adam

    March 9th, 2015 at 3:49 PM

    I am not so sure that I need a mentor but I would love to have those connections that are needed today to find a great job. It has become so much about who you know, not necessarily what you know, and I think that has made it even more difficult to land a good job when you just don’t have that connection with another important person in the job field.

  • Amy A.

    March 9th, 2015 at 6:44 PM

    @Adam, I think that part of the reason it’s important to connect with people in the field you are interested in, or would like to progress in, is that they have the best sense of what you really need to know to be successful. They also tend to be more knowledgable about how to find good job opportunities. In the end, I think a lot of what we achieve over the course of our career is merit-based, but you are at a serious disadvantage if you don’t have a connection with someone who has successfully navigated through that field.

  • Paula

    March 10th, 2015 at 10:36 AM

    There are many who can benefit from having a strong mentor, but I do think that there are certain people who can benefit more than others. And this doesn’t have to exclude any race or gender, but I think that having a guiding hand in some way can really help those who are less confident and who are still struggling with who they are and who they wish to become. It is nice when you learn that someone else has been there, that they understand you and that they can relate to you in a way that others cannot. I think that knowing that you have this kind of person to look up to can be a tremendous asset to someone who is struggling with corporate life in general.

  • Jon

    March 11th, 2015 at 3:43 AM

    Do you find that there are a lot of companies who put a lot of credence into this method and work to find a positive mentor for young new hires?

  • Lisa

    March 12th, 2015 at 6:17 AM

    It’s always so nice to have someone who has been there, done that, to be around helping look out for you when you are first getting started.

  • aida

    March 13th, 2015 at 10:13 AM

    Boy when I got that first job out of college I thought that I didn’t need anyone, that I learned everything that I needed to know during those four years at university.

    Ahem, it only took me like a day, if that, to realize that I was soooo wrong and that I needed help. I found someone who was nice to me that first day and luckily she became my little gift. I could have never succeeded without her help.

  • Marlin

    March 14th, 2015 at 8:30 AM

    Networking is always going to be a useful tool for helping you get ahead in most any job setting. You can never make too many friends out there in the business world, because I know that I am the person that I want someone to think of when they are looking for a new candidate fr a new position.

  • clara

    March 16th, 2015 at 10:54 AM

    While I do think that this can be very worthwhile on both sides of the coin, I can also see how some workers who have been somewhere a long time could get very pout off and threatened by new talent coming in.
    This may cause them to want to withhold just a little because they don’t want to run the risk of their job being taken over by someone else.


    March 17th, 2015 at 10:30 AM

    Yes I do think that the relationships can work out better when two people naturally find one another.

    But that can be hard to do, especially in large corporations, so there could be times when it will be much better for someone else to make this match.

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