A 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.
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