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Finding the Right Professional Mentor

By Taunee Besson, CMF, CareerCast.com Senior Columnist

Q: From books, seminars and friends, I've learned that having a professional mentor can help me advance my career. But so far I haven't gotten any practical advice on finding a professional mentor, or what the qualities of a good professional mentor would be. Do you have some tips on how to develop a professional mentorship with someone who knows the ropes and wants to share their wisdom?

A: Many good professional mentors would agree that mentorship can play a major factor in your career success. Many professionals who don't have a mentor wish they did. Unfortunately, the process for cultivating a professional mentorship is both mystifying and a little scary. However, there are a few techniques you can use for finding and evaluating a professional mentor that are tried and true.

Ready to find your own professional mentor? Here are some important attributes you should look for, so you can develop a relationship that will help you advance your career:

  • Your mentor should be willing and able to spend time with you
  • All of the great career advice in the world won't do you any good unless you have 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 will view your success as a reflection of their mentoring ability. You don't want advice from someone who'll be intimidated by your increasing stature and expertise.

  • Your mentor should be respected by their company and community
  • With respect comes contacts and access to their network of contacts. Often mentoring involves putting you together with others who can help you achieve your goals.

  • Your mentor should help you focus on where you want to go
  • They should possess a global view and be able to see beyond their own area of expertise. Embracing your mentor's vision of the big picture will help you to make important strategic career moves when the time is right.

  • Your mentor should give you honest praise and criticism
  • Your professional mentor should feel comfortable discussing your flaws as well as your talents. They 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, and problem solving ideas.

  • Your mentor should be discreet
  • It's best if your conversations are confidential, and your professional mentor is regarded as someone who knows how to keep their mouth shut. Gossips are rarely privy to the most important decisions.

Now you know who to look for, you must frequent places where you're most likely to find a good professional mentor. As you might expect, your workplace is a good start.

While your immediate supervisor should be a logical choice for a professional mentor, they may not always be the best one. Before you latch onto your boss, take a look at the political climate in your department. Will your co-workers be upset if your manager becomes your personal mentor? Is your manager someone who has respect and contacts throughout the company? If your answer is "no" to the first question and "yes" to the second one, then your boss has the qualities of a good professional mentor.

Should your boss not be a good fit, you might instead look for a professional mentor a couple of levels higher up the career ladder. This person can be affiliated with your industry, or work in a completely different one. A financial analyst who has a mentor in sales, for example, may gain a perspective that another numbers person wouldn't have.

Other great places to find a professional mentor are the community and fraternal organizations you'd typically use in networking for a job. Churches, Chambers of Commerce, professional organizations representing your industry, non-profit committees, alumni groups, political parties, conventions, workshops, newspaper articles, and professors from local colleges are all excellent resources for finding a professional mentor.

Once you find someone with the qualities of a good professional mentor, how do you begin the relationship? Consider the direct approach: call or talk to them in person; say you've been watching their career, like their ideas and would appreciate the opportunity to develop a mentoring friendship with them. Most people will respect your initiative and feel complimented.

Then again, cold calling someone and saying that you've been watching their career can also seem a bit creepy. If you're worried about your approach looking more like a stalker than a mentee, try asking a mutual friend to serve as an intermediary. If you can find a connection to introduce you to your potential mentor, your request won't seem so forward. Being recommended by a colleague should boost your chances of getting your mentor's attention, and help put you on the road to securing a strong professional mentorship that will benefit your career for years to come.


Senior Columnist Taunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979 that works with individual and corporate clients in career transition, job search, executive coaching, talent management and small business issues. She is an award-winning columnist for CareerJournal.com and a best-selling author of the Wall Street Journal's books on resumes and cover letters. Her articles on a variety of career issues have appeared on numerous career/job websites and trade and business journals. Ms. Besson has been quoted numerous times in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money, and a number of other websites and publications.

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