How Great Mentors Can Be Key to Your Career Success Posted October 26, 2016 by Sean Murphy
Reflecting on my career to date, I realized that a lot of the career success I've achieved comes down to having had valuable mentors over the years. Just what separates a mentor from your average contact? A mentor is someone who proactively takes an interest in your success, offering to help you work through professional issues as they arise. Simply put, it's someone who is invested in you without necessarily seeking anything in return.
As I think about the mentors who have been instrumental in my career, I realized that if it weren't for one of my closest mentors, I most likely wouldn't be in my current position at Accraply, a worldwide provider of label application equipment. After spending more than five years as Leader of Sales Compensation Programs at Barry-Wehmiller, a global supplier of manufacturing technology and services, I was ready for a new challenge. So, I reached out to one of my mentors, Séamus Lafferty, who's now President at Accraply—a division of Barry-Wehmiller—to let him know that it would be an honor to work under his leadership. Knowing that I speak fluent Spanish, Séamus identified a clear need in his business for which I would be a perfect fit: identifying the total sales opportunity for Accraply in Latin America, and developing the company's go-to-market strategy there to broaden their reach and scale. I immediately jumped at the opportunity; I was excited about not only applying my language skills in the role, but also taking a lead in evaluating an entirely new market for Accraply. I have been in my position as Market Manager for Latin America at Accraply for close to a year now, and am so glad to have made the move.
Séamus, as well as my other mentors, have been critically important to my career development, and I wouldn't be where I am now if it wasn't for their support and guidance. From my experiences of seeking out and building relationships with my mentors, I've learned some core lessons that anyone who is looking for a great mentor could apply over the course of their own careers.
Know What You're Looking for in a Mentor
It's not enough to wake up one day and say you want to find a mentor. You need to first take a step back and identify why you want a mentor in the first place, as well as the type of person who could be helpful to you. For example, are you looking to make a connection with someone who has advanced in the ranks of your industry because you'd like to learn how to navigate your career and move up? Or, if you work in sales, are you seeking out someone who has closed many deals and could offer best practices for you to become more successful in your own role?
Whatever your specific situation is, the first step is to understand your professional goals so you can seek out a mentor who can help you achieve them.
In my case, when I began my professional career as a licensed personal banker and sales representative at JPMorgan Chase in 2004, I had access to bankers with many years of experience who were successful in their roles. Because I was very early in my career, I looked up to the more senior bankers and executives. I made a point to identify the qualities that made them successful, ask them questions, and solicit their feedback and advice. I then used these observations, coupled with my own motivation, to shape my own career progress in the four years that I spent at Chase. I found that by emulating the strengths I observed in others—whether it was persistence or asking senior leaders about their best tips for closing a deal—I was able to grow in my role.
As I advanced in my career, I knew it was also important to find mentors who were great coaches and could guide me in navigating specific business situations. One example of this that stands out is when I faced skepticism during a sales meeting I hosted in France. During a break in the meeting, Séamus coached me on how to best process and respond to the skepticism that a few of the sales people to whom I was presenting were articulating in the meeting. Thanks to Séamus' advice, I was able to craft and communicate a message that allowed me to end the meeting on a high note.
Looking up to successful people with whom I worked, as well as being open to receiving guidance from those who have been in my shoes before, were both critical in helping me to establish relationships with the right mentors over the course of my career.
Set the Groundwork for a Fruitful Mentor/Mentee Relationship
After you have determined the qualities you are seeking in a mentor, you need to understand how to convince your mentor to devote precious time and resources (e.g., industry contacts) to your career development.
Once you have someone in mind who you'd like to have as a mentor, approach that person just as you would any other professional connection: reach out to schedule an informal meeting for less than one hour, perhaps over coffee, and come with an idea of specific questions or thoughts you'd like to discuss. At this point, you should have a good sense of why you'd want this person to be a mentor to you, so it's important to arrive with thoughtful questions and use the time to listen and absorb what he or she is sharing with you.
After the initial meeting, make sure to follow up and thank the person for their time. If you feel that he or she would be a good mentor to you, then take the opportunity to get another meeting or conversation onto the calendar. This sets the foundation for a relationship that is both incredibly valuable and mutually beneficial to both of you.
During your second meeting, you can be up front and ask your contact to be your mentor. Be open about the reasons you are asking them to be your mentor, what you're hoping to get out of the relationship, and how much time and attention you think you'll need from your mentor. Also, set up a system to measure how you're progressing against your goals. While this doesn't need to be too formal, it should be structured such that you and your mentor are getting the most out of the relationship. A good starting point could be to set up bi-weekly or monthly meetings and use those conversations as an opportunity to check in, catch up and discuss how you're progressing toward your key goals.
Give as Much (or More Than) You Take
This is arguably the most important rule to keep in mind as a mentee: your mentors are being generous with their time and sharing their knowledge, so you need to make sure that you're giving as much, if not more, than you're taking.
It helps to think of your relationship with your mentor just as you would any other relationship in your life: if there isn't at least a balance between what you give and what you take, then it's unlikely to work out.
So, how could you go about giving back to a mentor who has given you their time and expertise? Thoughtfulness goes a long way here. For example, share your big "wins" with your mentor, especially if he or she offered instrumental guidance to help you in achieving those wins. In addition to an email, consider adding a more personal touch by sending a hand-written "thank you" note emphasizing how much their advice and insights helped in setting you up for success. While this may seem like a small gesture, it goes a long way in showing appreciation for your mentor's time and demonstrating how much value they've brought to you. I can say from personal experience that expressing something as simple as gratitude has made a tremendous difference in strengthening my relationships with my mentors over the years.
In the same vein, be sure to stay on top of your mentor's major achievements. For example, if your mentor receives a big promotion or closes a huge deal, make sure to reach out and congratulate him or her. This not only shows that you are invested in your mentor's success, but also potentially opens up new doors for learning even more over the course of the relationship.
Finally, there may be times when your mentor approaches you for help, guidance or advice on an area or issue he or she may not be very familiar with. In these cases, be ready to share the insights you have to offer. Not only does it give you the opportunity to pay it forward to your mentor, but it also does a lot to strengthen and reinforce the value of the relationship for both of you.
While we hear a lot about the benefits of having a mentor, establishing and maintaining relationships with great mentors isn't always intuitive. In fact, in many cases, it could feel intimidating. As my own experiences have shown, though, taking the time and effort to build valuable and truly mutually-beneficial relationships with great mentors could be the secret, underrated ingredient to a successful career.
Sean Murphy, a CommonBond member, is Market Manager for Latin America at Accraply, a division of Barry-Wehmiller. He previously spent more than five years as Leader of Compensation Programs at Barry-Wehmiller. Sean received his MBA in 2010 from Olin Business School at the Washington University in St. Louis. He lives with his husband and dog in St. Louis, Missouri, and enjoys running and traveling.
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