Guest post by Leann Barden, co-chair of the AOCS Young Professional Common Interest Group
Mentors are wonderful resources. I have had many mentors in my life and have found them in many different places — an aunt, my Girl Scout leader, teachers and graduate school professors, “big buddies” assigned through work, trusted managers, veteran colleagues I met in the food line at the AOCS President’s Welcome, and even a woman I met on an 8-hour Amtrak ride while moving from DC back to Massachusetts. At its core, mentorship is simply a relationship built on trust, typically between a less seasoned individual and a veteran one. Mentors are typically older than their mentees, but a mentor is really anyone who has more experience in an area you want to learn.
While everyone recognizes the value of mentorship, many of us struggle to establish strong mentor/mentee relationships. The title alone seems somewhat daunting — am I qualified to be someone’s mentor? How do I ask someone to be my mentor? Here are some tips, tricks, and questions to get you started — all based on my personal experiences — as well as some additional resources. Enjoy!
Finding a Mentor
Step 1: Talk to people. When you are at a networking event, try introducing yourself to people you have not yet met and ask them about their careers. If you are new to a company, set up “meet-and-greets” with people. You should ask your manager when you are first hired about people you should meet in order to better do your job, but you can also set up these meet-and-greets with literally anyone else you meet in the company, even if it is just someone with whom you struck up a great conversation while waiting in the cafeteria checkout line.
Step 2: Of these people you have now met, consider who you found both interesting and approachable (i.e., easy to talk to). Is it someone who recently got a promotion and might be able to give you advice on that process? Is it a more senior scientist who currently holds your dream job, and you want to know what experiences you need to one day hold that position yourself? Or is it someone who seems to be masterfully juggling work and family when you yourself are just starting a new life stage and feeling a bit frustrated? Of all the meet-and-greets you are having, you will inevitably find that a single meeting or two might suffice for answering your questions, but other people seem to offer great advice on numerous fronts, and you keep returning to them with questions. The latter are your mentors.
Step 3: Build a relationship. Mentors can help you best if they know who you are — what interests you; what scares you; what experiences you have had and still want to have; etc. They are also most likely to be invested in your development if they like you as an individual, which requires building a relationship. To respect your mentor’s time, try to meet for only 30–60 minutes at a time, generally speaking. I would say I have four close mentors right now. Two are from previous jobs, and we chat via phone or have lunch maybe 2–3 times per year, with a few short emails in between to keep the relationship going (“I got married! Here’s a picture from the wedding.” Or maybe, “I just talked to a direct report about XYZ, and it reminded me of that time you helped me with ABC.”). I currently work with the other two mentors, so we will do lunch or coffee on maybe a bimonthly cadence. I always come with a few questions for my mentor because that is the reason we are meeting, but I also take time to learn about their lives because (1) I care about their lives, and (2) you don’t want to just fire off question after question; that is bad for relationship building and makes for a tedious conversation. Recognize that this person is taking time from their busy schedule and be sure to thank him or her accordingly.
Questions to Get You Started
First couple of meetings:
1. How did you get into your current role?
2. Where else have you worked?
3. Tell me about your family/hobbies/etc.
Subsequent meetings: I’m struggling with….
1. Have you been in a similar situation?
2. Can you recommend any resources?
3. You work with closely with (my boss). Do you have any advice for managing up with him/her?
Learn more tips for a successful mentoring relationship, provided by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
A few additional resources:
1. Mentoring Matters. Three Essential Elements of Success.
2. Keys to Successful Mentoring Relationships.
3. The National Marketing Partnership website.
4. The Dos and Don’ts of Mentoring.
5. A Guide to Understanding the Role of a Mentor (it’s different than coaching).