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Networking and Finding a Mentor

"It's not what you know, but who you know that gets you the job...the contract... the promotion."

"If you want a new friend, ask a stranger for aid."

"To be successful, you must have a mentor."

"Don't expect a headhunter's help, if he doesn't know you exist. To attract his attention, make yourself visible by contributing your time and talent to professional and community organizations where the caliber of your work will be noticed by both colleagues and search firms alike."

Probably you've heard these bits of wisdom before. Maybe you've even taken them to heart. Yet, have you ever stopped to consider what they have in common? It's people. In today's business climate corporate politics may seem more sinister than sanguine, but the genuine need to connect with kindred spirits still prevails. Even J. Peter Grace and J. P. Bolduc, protagonists in the W. R. Grace battle for control, were in a mentor/mentee relationship at one point. And, the new CEO in a hostile takeover replaces the incumbent management with his own people, not because he enjoys firing folks, but because he feels more comfortable working with his own staff.

While doing a good job will always be important, making and maintaining contacts is your real key to success. If you haven't experienced the benefits mentoring and networking can offer you, it's time you give them a try. When you are willing to connect with colleagues both inside your company and beyond, your new alliances can generate a variety of advantages from broadening your opportunities to increasing your job security.

Aside from the good feeling inherent in pushing beyond your current people boundaries, networking and mentoring relationships can provide at least three important benefits that going it alone will not:

  • Information. Have you ever wondered why some people understand your company's informal power structure and you don't? Do you wish you knew the person to answer your question instead of having to call a dozen places before you hit pay dirt? A well-developed network can easily give you the inside information on both of these situations and many more.
  • Camaraderie. Wouldn't it be fun to have friends for whom fly fishing is more important than food? Picture yourself among the dedicated, high-powered women executives planning a quiet revolution to provide on-site day care. "It just doesn't get any better than this!" Networking can find these comrades for you.
  • Opportunity. Do you envy the colleague who hears about openings in other departments before you? Would you like to have the inside track on capturing the lucrative corporate contracts currently going to your competition? Your network can get you information faster than a speeding bullet with more insights than the Wall Street Journal, if you are willing to take the time and effort to build it.

If you are convinced that networking and finding a mentor are your keys to success, but you don't know how to do either, try some of the suggestions below.

Networking and Finding a Mentor Within Your Company

These activities may seem different, but they're actually two pages from the same book. Both of them require the willingness to initiate and nurture a relationship (even when your time, energy and commitment are on the wane) if you are to achieve their greatest value.

To begin your quest for contacts and mentors, start close to home with your manager because he has the greatest influence over your career. Building a solid relationship with him requires regular communication. If you've been thinking he'll automatically reward you for excellent work, think again. Most managers don't make a special effort to track the progress of their employees. From their perspective, no news is good news. To develop a mentor/mentee relationship with your boss, ask for informal meetings to monitor your progress, get feedback and set mutual goals. Do this on a continuing basis until it becomes a habit for both of you.

Make a genuine effort to get to know the manager's boss because he OKs your raises, promotions and transfers. Take every opportunity to speak to him in the hall, consult with him on projects (as long as your supervisor knows), and keep him informed about the fine job you are doing. Exercising a little enlightened self-interest can spotlight your performance and help you build a solid relationship with someone who knows the ropes and might enjoy explaining them to you.

You should also cultivate contacts in other departments of your company by participating in multi-department activities such as ad hoc task forces, volunteer work, classes or even the company softball team. When you find someone with whom you have a special rapport, nurture your relationship by getting together on a regular basis for a cup of coffee, lunch or a social activity outside the office.

If you find a potential mentor in another department, take the initiative to ask if he or she would be willing to serve in that capacity. If the answer is affirmative, schedule ongoing meetings to build your relationship, either at the office or away from it.

Networking and Finding a Mentor Outside Your Company

Savvy professionals know that all work and no play not only makes them dull, it deprives them of valuable friendships. Involving yourself in group activities outside of work offers a host of opportunities to make a satisfying contribution, increase your visibility and develop contacts you wouldn't have otherwise. Your participation in professional and community organizations is often the key to being discovered by the very headhunters who might otherwise ignore your calls. To make the best use of your time in organizations, be sure to select one or two whose mission genuinely interests you. Joining a group simply to make contacts isn't particularly satisfying and will eventually expose your half-hearted commitment. To get the most from your experience become involved in some committees or take a leadership role. When you do, trusted contacts will naturally evolve from your working together.

Should you identify a mentor or two through participating in your church, alumni group, professional organization or volunteer activity, reserve some time for one-to-one conversation. As you become a more seasoned executive, you may find your most helpful mentors are peers or you've unwittingly become the mentor yourself. No doubt, you'll also realize that a mentoring relationship can be just as satisfying for the senior/equal partner as the junior one.

The Mastermind

Another way to benefit from contacts and mentors is to form your own mastermind group. Masterminds operate on the principle that the sum is greater than the parts. You can assemble your mastermind from friends or acquaintances whom you admire or you can put together a group of strangers who are in a position to help one another. For instance, a group of small business owners in non-competing companies can be a wonderful resource for brainstorming marketing ideas, dealing with personnel problems or suggesting ways to improve cash flow. An informal group of CFOs might meet monthly to discuss how they are handling situations common to all of them. A mastermind for women executives battling the glass ceiling can be of great benefit to everyone participating.

As you can see, there are any number of ways to find contacts and mentors both inside and outside the office. But you must seize the initiative to achieve the benefit. Making and nurturing contacts is a lot like regular exercise: we know it should be an integral part of our lives, but we rarely seem to have enough time, energy or resolve to start and continue it over the long haul. Yet, there is an answer to this universal problem. In the words of Nike, "Just do it!"

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