Your smartest career strategy? Get a mentor.

how to find a mentor |

Jane Baxter Lynn

What’s your smartest career strategy? According to Jane Baxter Lynn, principal of JBL Strategies, it’s mentors. “They guide you, and they’re available to you through the ups and downs,” she explains. “Some mentors will come and go, and others will become friends and long-term supporters. Either way, they are intrinsically valuable.”

As leader of the Women Communicators of Austin (WCA) Career Services Mentor Program — and winner of the WCA Gene Waugh Mentor Award — she’s one of our top go-to women for mentoring advice:

How do I know when it’s time to get a mentor?

You should always have mentors, even when you don’t think you need one. Whether you’re a student or professional, a stay-at-home mom returning to the workforce, or a professional wanting to change direction, you can benefit from another person’s support and knowledge. No matter your age, education, experience, or position, you can and must continue to grow. A mentor can help you:

  • find a fresh perspective
  • think through your ideas and plans
  • prevent you from making mistakes
  • inspire you to start something new
  • make your current work more meaningful

The honest answer to the question of “when” is “it depends.” Sometimes you make the active decision to find someone who can provide guidance on a specific situation or open a specific door for you. Other times, it just happens naturally. The first, most important thing is that you must want to make a change and be prepared to learn from others.

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WCA Speed Mentoring (photo by Karen Aroian)

What is the difference between a mentor and a coach, and how do I know who’s right for me?

A mentor is typically someone who may be your employer, a professional colleague, or a friend who volunteers her/his time to help you succeed. S/he will provide a listening ear and guide you through your career decisions, work challenges, or personal issues, usually based on her/his own experiences. A mentor may also use her/his networks to open doors for you. The relationship is usually informal.

On the other hand, a paid professional coach usually works with clients in a formal partnership, addressing identified goals over a specified period of time. As independent business people, coaches will differ in their offerings, certifications, methods and expertise.

It’s not an either/or choice — many professionals call on both coaches and mentors at different times in their careers.

What will a mentor provide me that I won’t get from my boss?

Some bosses can be great mentors, both while you’re working for them and afterward. Bosses are usually great at correcting negative work behaviors, encouraging additional training, and providing guidance on career paths. But your current boss may have different goals for you, and may be self-interested. Also, you may not always be able to talk freely with your current boss, because it may impact your working relationship.

Other mentors — friends, professional colleagues, experts — usually have no self-interest in your career, so they can serve as an objective third party. Having a trusted advisor with no ties to your business or workplace not only broadens your viewpoint, but also your circle of influence and, potentially, your job prospects.

How do I choose a mentor?

Choosing a mentor requires you to have a clear focus on what you want to achieve from the relationship. For example, are you looking to change career direction or change jobs in the same field? Some professional organizations, such as WCA, provide a mentor service for their members. Often times, asking your peers and friends is a good way to go, too.

How do I “make the ask”?

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask. Remember that most people like being asked for their advice. As long as you respect your mentor’s time and understand that her/his credibility is on the line, it can be a very fulfilling relationship for both of you.

Once you’ve identified a mentor, your approach depends on whether you know the person or not. If you do, simply ask if s/he can spare the time for a cup of coffee to get advice. If you don’t know the person, find someone in your network who could introduce you and then follow up from there.

The key: be clear about what you are looking to gain.

What do I need to do to make for a productive relationship with my mentor?

  1. Be prepared. Think beforehand about your most pressing issues and the ways your mentor might help with them.
  2. Be proactive. You’re the one who asked for help, so be prepared to be the one who works on the relationship. Make it easy for your mentor. Suggest a number of different dates and times, and be prepared to travel to a location convenient for your mentor.
  3. Set up a process. At the end of your first meeting, discuss if and when you will meet again. If the answer is yes, then proactively agree on the process: how (face-to-face over coffee, lunch or happy hour, on Skype, via e-mail or by phone) and how often.
  4. Confirm action items. Agree upon what you will accomplish in the meantime. This could be something as simple as following up on a book recommendation or other suggested resources.
  5. Be interested. A one-way street is never fulfilling. Express your commitment to this process and show an interest in your mentor. Ask about her/his family or other interests and commitments.
  6. Stay in touch. It’s up to you to keep your mentor posted. Send regular updates and express your gratitude.
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WCA Speed Mentoring (photo by Karen Aroian)


Other top tips about mentoring?

Don’t forget to say “thank you.” And acknowledge when you have success as a result of your mentor’s help.

What WCA has to offer:

  • The WCA Mentor Program is a formal one-on-one service for student and professional members
  • A monthly Ask A Mentor column
  • A quarterly Speed Mentoring gathering for student members. The next Speed Mentoring event will be held 10:30am – 12:30pm on Saturday, March 28, at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business CBA 4.348.


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