In Search of the Right Mentor

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By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, CSP, FAAN

Much has been written about the benefits of mentoring and how to be a good mentor. But what if you’re the one who needs to be mentored? How can you find the right person to guide you in your career? And how do you approach that person once you do? Here are five things to consider.

What to Look for

When looking for a potential mentor, seek out someone who has considerable expertise in his or her profession or specialty. This person should be someone you admire and respect. It’s also important to seek out a good communicator who makes you feel comfortable and seems to have a caring attitude.

An ideal mentor is a proven leader with high standards who is passionate and enthusiastic about his or her profession. Certainly, it must be someone you can trust. Ideally, your mentor should be well connected, too.

Where to Look

Potential mentors exist in many different places. Although a mentor may be someone you currently work with, it can also be someone who works for another company or who is self-employed. A mentor might be a current or former nursing instructor, someone in a position you aspire to, or even an individual who is retired.

Mentors can often be found through professional associations. Usually, you’ll find many industry leaders there and more likely those who are willing to help. Some associations have mentoring programs where they match up an experienced colleague with someone needing mentoring. Remember, a mentor can be helpful to you at every stage of your career. In fact, experienced nurses who want to make the move to the next level or a change within their career often benefit most from being mentored. This becomes even more important in a competitive job market.

How to Initiate the Relationship

Have a clear objective in mind when you approach a potential mentor. You need to have a concept of where you’re going and what you want to accomplish. Do you want to move up the corporate ladder or succeed in a new position or just be better at your current job?

Think of people you already know who fit the above parameters. Is there someone who has shown some interest in you and your career or been particularly helpful? Sometimes mentors are all around you, gently giving you advice and guidance and waiting to see if you wish to develop a more formal relationship. You need to take the lead.

Rather than asking someone to mentor you, it’s sometimes better to let the relationship develop naturally. For example, you might initially make phone contact or face-to-face contact with someone you know or admire. Tell the person how much you respect them and that you aspire to be more like them. Tell them, generally, about your career goals and ask if you might meet with them for 20 minutes or 30 minutes to learn more about them and their success and to get some advice. Assess the person’s openness to this and the potential ability to develop a more formal relationship with you. Understand that while many people would love to be a mentor, some simply don’t have the time or energy.

If you wish to contact someone who does not know you, you might initially send a letter of introduction indicating that you will be calling in a week’s time. Your letter can state your interest in learning more about that person and your desire to meet to get some advice and feedback from them. Once you’ve made contact and established the relationship, ask if that individual would be willing to be a mentor to you to help you achieve your career goals.

How to Be a Good Protégé

The mentor/protégé relationship is a two-way street. Both parties have responsibilities in the process and both can benefit from the relationship. Give your mentor feedback on the advice and guidance he or she gives you. Stay in touch with your mentor and keep him or her posted on your progress. Show appreciation for your mentor’s time and support. Look for ways to support and promote your mentor. Know what you want, and don’t waste your mentor’s time.

Some Additional Things to Consider

A mentor doesn’t necessarily need to be the same gender on in the same specialty as the protégé. While some managers and supervisors may take a keen interest in you and act as a mentor of sorts, a mentor should ideally be someone who you do not report to. There are many reasons for this, including workplace politics, possible on-the-job competition, and the need to sometimes discuss sensitive workplace issues, including your relationship with your supervisor. Since most mentoring relationships run their course after a certain period of time, you will likely have several mentors over the course of your career.

When I think back on my career, I realize that I encountered many potential mentors along the way, and many seemed more than willing to help me. However, being unaware of the concept of mentoring and the benefits it would bring, I almost never took the time to develop a more formal relationship with any of them. I missed out on a lot, was always reinventing the wheel, and probably made a lot of avoidable mistakes and gaffes. I always thought that I had to do things the hard way and “make it on my own” to be successful. As I became more experienced, I realized that many successful people got where they are through the guidance and support of mentors. Look for these people in your life.

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