Sunday, May 3, 2009

A mentor is not enough: a quick guide to finding guidance

Some people, especially those of us that are ahem, a little more early on in their careers, tend to whine about something kind of ridiculous: "I don't have a mentor!" or even more infuriating "No one ever helped me". Ugh.

I hardly know where to begin on this one...but here are some points on this:

1. Don't complain--take action
Keep in contact with people you enjoyed working with, who were engaged, smart, and produced great work. This should be a variety of people both at, above, and below your own level of experience. There is no career silver bullet that is going to make everything align perfectly. A mentor who's just like you only further along in his/her career is hard, but it's impossible if you never branch out, reach out, or go out. Don't let shame or guilt get in the way. If you ping people regularly just to say hi, when you finally do need a favor, they'll hook you up and you won't feel bad/weird about contacting them out of the blue because you need help.

2. Be ignored & be OK
Expect a variety of responses...such as unexpected great advice or total flakes. I'll give you some examples, both good and bad:
  • I'm still in touch with one of my first bosses who lives in Illinois. I'll drop him a postcard or letter from time to time & ALWAYS get a response. As a former U of Illinois Omnibudsman & director he has tons of perspective on life, managing, and is still funny. I've never tapped him for a favor, but I have no doubt he would help out.
  • At one job, the VP of my department agreed to meet with me once a month to mentor me. Sounds like a great opportunity right? He had very little in the way of advice and even less personality. I once pressed him explicitly for some kind of tip since he wasn't engaged at all. His advice? Something about money. Nothing about relationships. Hmph.
  • One former coworker and friend dropped off the face of the planet after she left the company. Though I'd emailed her a few times, I never heard from her again.
  • A friend of a friend talked with me for over an hour on the phone, offering tips, & advice on negotiating, running a business, & at the end even offered some work (I wasn't available but this was still wonderful & a lot).
The point is, you just don't know what people will do, so don't take it personally if someone doesn't respond. Give them the benefit of the doubt, try again after some time passes, & try someone else.

3. Read a book
Thirsty for help? People who write books are there for you, waiting patiently at your library & favorite bookstore.

4. Mental Alchemy
Sometimes you just won't have the advice you need from a direct source. In absence of real advice, consider your old favorite bosses. List of some of the things they did great & why you liked them. Do they all have something in common. Stitch together a set of themes you notice across great leadership. Those are the traits things you should develop.

5. Meet new people
Go to conferences, professional meetings and bring business cards. You might not meet the right person, but due to the law of six degrees, you'll meet someone who knows the right person.

6. Work with what you've got
Appreciate the talents within the people immediately around you. They don't need to have even climbed the corporate ladder, they might just be awesome at something. You definitely know people who are awesome at something. Gardening, Running, etc. Learn their habits and you'll have no shortage of quality role models.