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Mentoring

"Having a mentor is your single most important key to success," according to Mary Sias, C.E.O. of the YWCA of Metropolitan Dallas. Yet many people don't know they need one let alone how to find one and build a relationship. Adding to this problem are the business demographics which indicate minorities have yet to break the glass ceiling in most organizations. And, according to Hugh Robinson, a retired Army General and Partner in the Tetra Group, "Minorities in high ranking positions are overworked as mentors because there are so few of them." Fortunately, there are more and more minorities willing and able to help their younger brothers and sisters learn the ropes, both because they are in key midlevel positions, and they recognize that mentoring is part of their trail-blazing responsibility.

While there is no shortage of Anglo males at higher levels, Ms. Sias says, "They often hesitate to mentor people of color because they don't want to be accused of favoritism or tokenism." And as noted by Regina Montoya, a Shareholder in the law firm of Godwin and Carlton, "People are naturally drawn to others like themselves. The Anglo male who is willing and interested in mentoring minorities and women must be particularly sensitive to the differences between him and his mentee." Yet, the panel of experts interviewed for this article mentioned many of their mentors were of a different sex or ethnicity. In fact, Rob Franco, a leader in the Hispanic community and a Customer Education Trainer for Xerox, said the people most influential in his career have been Anglos.

Regardless of the sex or ethnicity of your mentor, there are some important attributes you should look for in selecting a good one.

  • She/he must be available and willing to spend time with you. All of the great advice in the world won't do you any good unless you have ready access to it.

  • Your mentor should have a healthy self-image. Self-confident people are willing to suggest new approaches. They make good leaders. And they revel in your success as a reflection of their mentoring ability. You certainly don't want advice from someone who will be intimidated by your increasing stature and expertise.

  • They should be highly respected in their organization and their community. With respect comes contacts and access to their network of peers. Often mentoring involves putting you together with others who can help you achieve your goals.

  • Good mentors have a facility for helping you to focus on where you want to go from here. They should possess a global view and be able to see beyond their own area of responsibility. As Ms. Montoya points out, "It's pretty rare these days for a mentor/mentee relationship to last an entire career, especially with current employment turnover." Embracing your mentor's vision of the big picture will help you to move on to a new situation when the time is right.

  • Good communication is also important. Your mentor should feel comfortable discussing your flaws as well as your talents. She/he should be empathetic, willing to admit to an occasional mistake or lack of information, adept at asking probing questions and eager to serve as a source of support, encouragement, problem solving ideas and attaboys(girls).

  • A little discretion can go a long way. It's best if your conversations are confidential and your mentor is regarded as someone who knows how to keep his mouth shut. Gossips are rarely privy to the most important decisions.

  • Our panelists also mentioned the importance of both company and community visibility. In fact, Ms. Montoya emphasized that her mentors have come primarily from her volunteer work, rather than her law firms.

Now that you know what to look for, you will need to frequent those places where you're most likely to find a mentor. As you might expect, a good place to start is your workplace.

While your immediate supervisor should be a logical mentoring choice, she/he may not be the best one. Before you latch onto your boss, take a look at the political climate in your department. Are your peers likely to feel slighted if your manager becomes your personal mentor? Is your supervisor someone who has respect and contacts throughout the company? If you can comfortably answer, "no," to the first question and "yes" to the second, then proceed to build a mentoring relationship.

If your boss is not a good fit, you might consider someone a couple of levels higher than you. She/he may be affiliated with your area or in a completely different one. A financial analyst who has a mentor in sales, may gain exposure to a perspective another finance person wouldn't be likely to have.

According to Preston Weaver, a Human Resources Consultant, some companies with more advanced human resource systems foster mentoring relationships by helping to pair neophytes with old pros. To see if your firm has this program, talk to someone in personnel whom you trust.

Your friends are another good source of information. They may have friends or acquaintances who would enjoy being your "Yoda."

Of course, there are also the community and fraternal associations you would use in networking for a job. Churches, Chambers of Commerce, professional organizations representing your career or industry, non-profit committees or boards of directors, alumni groups, political parties, conventions, workshops, newspaper articles and professors from local colleges are all excellent resources for identifying mentors.

In your quest for the perfect mentor also keep your eyes open for seasoned veterans who show strong interest in you. The mentor relationship is a two way street. Mentors look for mentees, too.

Once you identify your candidate, how do you begin the relationship? Hugh Robinson suggests the direct approach: Call or talk to them in person, say you've been watching their career, you like their ideas and work style and would appreciate the opportunity to develop a mentoring friendship with them. Most people will respect your initiative and feel complimented by your selection.

Should this method seem a bit forward, you may choose to ask a mutual friend to serve as an intermediary who will enthusiastically introduce you to your potential mentor. Coming highly recommended by a trusted colleague should boost your confidence sufficiently to follow through in developing the relationship.

While there isn't any particular protocol on when and where to meet, giving some structure to your time together can be helpful. As you begin your friendship, plan regular meetings. Otherwise, you two busy people may never get your relationship off the ground! If politics run rampant in your organization, it's probably wiser to schedule a breakfast or lunch off site, rather than getting together in your mentor's office.

As your relationship settles into a comfortable informality, you may choose to be more flexible in your meeting schedule. Just don't allow it to lapse altogether. And remember, the mentee should generally assume the responsibility for building the rapport unless the mentor specifically chooses to take the initiative.

Over time you may eventually be confronted with two ticklish situations:

  • Your expertise equals or surpasses your mentor's.

  • Your mentor slips from favor in the organization's power structure due to his own mismanagement or because the new leadership views him as a vestige of the old regime. (The latter reason is prevalent in merges and takeovers.)

Both of these scenarios require a diplomatic assessment of your relationship's value versus the potential harm it might cause your career. If you've chosen a savvy, self-confident mentor, she/he will enjoy watching your progress, possibly feel a sense of relief when you achieve a peer level, and look forward to a relationship of equals.

It's the controlling mentor who can cause you problems. He wants to maintain the status quo because its a source of power for his fragile ego. Short of recommending co-dependency therapy for him, you'll probably have to distance yourself to save your friendship.

The fallen mentor situation is particularly hard to handle because many times he has slipped from grace from no fault of his own. In fact in a merger scenario, you may actually prefer to continue your friendship, rather than hunting for a more politically expedient substitute. However, a good mentor will probably recognize his demise from the "A" list and suggest you discreetly distance yourself from him, at least for the time being.

On the other hand, a mentor who has been accused of sexual harassment, gross negligence, or so other major transgression is no longer mentor material. Rather than going down with his ship, you'll need to cultivate other people resources who still have impeccable reputations.

A good insurance policy for avoiding this situation is nurturing friendships with a few non-competing managers or community leaders, simultaneously. Then, if a relationship with one should sour, you still have the others for ongoing support. Few mentors mind sharing a mentee, unless they feel you are playing both ends against the middle.

As your career moves to higher levels, honor your mentors by carrying on their tradition of helping younger brothers and sisters. If you've benefited from their friendship and learned from their example, you will be an ideal candidate to take their place with a new generation.


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