Who needs a mentor? You do
Monday, March 06, 2017
I need a mentor. So do you. You may be at the very beginning of your career or even still in school, a time when mentors are a common topic.
For those of us who have been doing what we do for a while, mentoring may not seem like such an obvious need. It is.
Consider these three reasons to seek out your own mentor.
1. Careers are not static
In this age of technological leaps, we don’t begin a career and continue on a single path through retirement. "Lifelong learner" has become a catch phrase on every resume and in every job interview.
Over the course of your career, you will need to learn new skills. Mentors can guide you to find the training you need, suggest skills to pursue and even teach some of those skills.
When I was a young designer, CAD was just entering the workplace. To stay relevant, I’ve spent hundreds of hours learning to use the newer technologies that allow me to continue to do my job.
My mentors along the way have both taught me the skills I need and directed me to find the training they couldn’t teach.
2. You are making a career shift
You’ve been in the trenches for years, and you want to change directions and go into management. You’ve got great design skills but marketing taps talent and connections that you haven’t had an opportunity to use.
Commercial office space designs fill your portfolio, and now you want to change directions and do some retail (or residential, hospitality, or health care) design. Maybe you’ve been doing this a long time and now you want to teach.
Finding a mentor that understands the direction you want to go, and someone who has even traveled that path is invaluable. They’ve been where you are and can help you to see your options for change.
3. You are bored
A mentor will challenge and inspire you. Perhaps you’re bored because you’ve been doing the same thing the same way for years or decades.
Maybe it’s time to tap a new source of business, or augment your business with a new set of skills. A mentor will see you and your process through a lens different from the lens you use.
Just as designers use the critiques of others to solidify design solutions, we can all benefit from the critiques of outsiders to refine and sharpen the direction of our careers.
Finding a mentor
So now that you’ve decided that a mentor is worth seeking, where should you look and how should you approach prospective mentors? There are programs that work like dating sites. You can cast a wide net using social media. Networking events might be an option.
But the bottom line is that a mentor/mentee relationship is just like any other relationship. It requires give and take, a personal connection and that magical chemistry. So, I’d skip those first three suggestions and start with these.
Forget the term 'mentor'
This is a relationship. Giving it a title is uncomfortable. The most useful mentor relationships build on themselves, so it's very likely you already know several people who might mentor you.
Don’t formalize a request (i.e., "Will you be my mentor?"), instead, ask a question. Ask for a specific piece of advice. If this relationship is to evolve into a mentoring relationship, this will be the beginning. If not, you will know to look elsewhere.
When I first began writing a few years ago, I reached out to a friend who is a journalist. I asked if we could get together because I had questions about how to charge for my writing.
She offered me her "friends and family rate" to answer my questions. Clearly she was not interested in mentoring. I continued my quest.
Look to people who respect you
One great way to begin an effective mentoring relationship is to find someone to whom you’ve already proven yourself. Someone who knows your work and your abilities.
This individual will already be in your court and may have the time and inclination to help you build skills, change direction, or otherwise grow as a professional.
Do you need to build skills?
If you’ve been living and working in the same geographical area for some time, there are people already in your circle of acquaintances who can help. Don’t let age or title narrow the pool.
If you are looking for specific computer skills, perhaps someone younger would be a more appropriate mentor.
My son has a friend who is a wizard at Photoshop. While he can’t give me career advice, he can help me boost my skills. While he is helping me learn Photoshop, I can help him explore career options.
Do you need perspective?
If what you’re looking for is perspective and direction, you may need to reach out to someone who’s been working in your field longer. A superior in your current position might be an option, or perhaps someone you know outside your firm.
One of my early mentors worked for an architectural firm and served as architect of record on several projects that we did together. He eventually convinced me to leave my job and come to work at his firm. When I needed help or advice, he was always my first stop.
Don’t be shy
Talk about what you want to do and where you hope to go with it. Talk about it at networking events. Talk about it at parties. Reach out to friends you haven’t seen in a while, and those you saw last week, and mention your plans.
You have a much bigger circle of contacts than you realize. Let them be part of your path. Many people enjoy being a help to someone.
I was at a party recently talking with a woman I’ve known socially for a decade. She dabbles in art, but we have no common business connections. I mentioned that I am going to start teaching design, and she offered to connect me with her cousin who has been teaching design for several years.
Here’s a connection, and possibly a mentor, that I never would have known about if not for a casual mention in a social setting.
Reach out to strangers
While reaching out to strangers goes against everything I’ve already said, sometimes it is appropriate. If you are changing careers or looking for a career shift, you may need to look outside your circle of acquaintances.
I don’t suggest putting a request out on social media, but I have been known to offer to buy lunch for someone who worked in a business that I found interesting. Answering ads for jobs is another way of meeting people in the business you hope to enter. However, be sure that you have enough to offer for this to be worthwhile.
Be clear about what you have to offer and where you are still building skills and knowledge. Attend professional development meetings, seminars, conferences, and classes. Reach out to the people you meet.
Mentoring is not a one-way street. Find ways to give back if you want to create successful mentoring relationships. Here are two things to keep in mind:
- Offer what you can to your mentor. Buy lunch, proof a website, offer design advice, write a letter… Don’t let this be a one-way relationship or it won’t last and it won’t be fruitful. No matter where you are in your career, you have much to offer.
- Mentor someone else.
Good luck on your quest!
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