Mentorship can be a bedrock of career development, provided the relationship is based on a set of common principles. Quality mentorship is all about creating a safety net of great people around you, fully committed to helping you reach your full potential — a win for everyone involved, including employers who can rely on it as a tool to attract and grow the best talent.
But it can be a real challenge finding the right mentor for you, one with a genuine desire to champion your career. People are busy, it can be intimidating to ask for help, and knowing who might offer the most insightful guidance can be tricky.
Here's a set of best practices from professionals in the field, to help you approach your search and establish a set-up that will go the distance.
Be clear about what you want. Angela Armstrong, of Warwick, UK, author of The Resilience Club and owner of coaching consultancy Armstrong Associates, says that the key to finding the right mentor is for the junior person to be really clear about what they want from the relationship.
“Some mentors may help with personal growth, some are highly connected, or well-established thought leaders,” Armstrong said. “Knowing what you are looking for helps you approach the right mentor, and you should even consider a mentor outside the company if you don’t find the right fit within.”
Tsutomu Miura, ACMA, CGMA, financial controller and head of finance at Griffith Foods K.K., based in Tokyo, says the mentee needs to share their goals for the mentoring relationship and overall career ambitions, then set a rough schedule for the meetings, number of sessions, and frequency. All this needs to be agreed on and firmed up before the actual mentoring starts.
Stretch until it feels uncomfortable. Look for someone who is where you’d like to be, even if it seems out of reach now. Armstrong recommends seeking out someone who is two promotions ahead of you at a minimum and who is genuinely a nurturing person. “If approaching the person doesn’t make you a bit nervous, you are not stretching far enough,” she said.
Commit. For Singapore-based Sharon Weintraub, CEO of Integrated Supply and Trading, Eastern Hemisphere, for BP, the commitment must start with the mentee. “Once clear on what you’d like to achieve, identify someone in the organisation who is successful in a senior role,” she said. Then reach out to test their interest and explain your objectives. “It’s key to communicate how this leader in particular can be of help. If it feels like a good fit, follow through by making the time to connect periodically,” Weintraub said.
Tap into every resource. On a practical note, Weintraub advises that if at a loss in identifying a mentor, you can ask your line manager, HR manager, or trusted stakeholder for introductions or ideas for leads, and take advantage of support networks.
“For instance, we had a book club at BP that grew into an informal mentoring circle amongst female leaders, where we got to share experiences and support each other,” she said. “Later, the department established mentoring circles, inclusive of both men and women, as a regular development offer.”
Create a safe space. Weintraub stresses the importance of creating a metaphorical “safe space” from the start, meaning that both parties know that it is safe to be fully open and honest. Mentees need to come into this safe space with a thick skin to receive advice and be ready to try out ideas to see what works.
You also need to be willing to move on if things don’t work out, Weintraub says. “Over time, if you don’t feel this is the right person for you, thank them for their time and find a better fit,” she said. “You can have multiple mentors during your career lifecycle, and it’s important to learn from different leadership approaches.”
Miura recommends that the interaction not be regarded as superior-subordinate but rather as something closer to coaching. “A mentor should prompt the junior executive to find the answer by themselves, not to teach,” Miura said, adding, “Most senior executives have hard skills, but not so many have adequate soft skills. Mentoring provides a good opportunity to develop the senior executive’s soft skills as well.”
Seek honest input. The aim of defining expectations from the start is to use precious time in the most effective way possible, and a large part of this is to ask for honest feedback and be prepared to take the positive with the negative.
“Having a mentor is all about developing as a person,” said Katie Baker, finance director at UK-based Menkind. “It’s great to hear the good, but you need to take on board any advice because it may help you think about something differently.”
— Sylvia Edwards Davis is a freelance writer based in France. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.