by Catalyst

Having a mentor is a key to success that many women in today’s workforce—especially women of color—simply do not have. And it’s no surprise. With relatively few women in top leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies, and the time pressures many working women confront, finding a mentor may seem impracticable. Open mindedness about potential mentors is worthwhile. A good mentor can be a man, a woman, a person from a background different from your own, or even your boss. The most important factor is that you and your mentor can comfortably exchange feedback and ideas. In any case, don’t wait around for mentors to come to you; be proactive in finding them yourself.

Define your goals.

The first step in finding a mentor is figuring out what kind of coaching and advice you need. Make a list, and put things in order of importance. Do you need advice on how to move to the next level? How to manage your support staff? How to write a report, press release, or presentation? Do you need the scoop on politics at the organization or on what it takes to rise to the top? Do you want insight on how to break into a new field?

Make a list of potential mentors.

Next, match your needs with people who might be able to address them. You want someone who can assess your performance—someone in the loop who believes in you and will help you get opportunities. Keep in mind that one person can rarely help you address all of your needs. Instead of searching for one perfect mentor, strive to become the mentee of several talented people. Think about people at your organization who can address some of your objectives. Who has had the experience you’re seeking and knows the path required? Who has the skills you want to acquire? Who’s the best manager? Who’s the most effective at meetings? Who has his/her ear to the ground? Make a list of all of these people. And of course, think about who has the influence to be able to help you move ahead.

Look inside and outside your company.

Find out whether or not your company has a formal mentoring program. One of the best places to find a mentor is in your own organization, but if you are unable to find a mentor internally, look outside. Consider everyone in your network: relatives; friends of the family; former bosses, co-workers, or professors; etc. Whom do you admire and respect? Who has already been a role model for you? Also check out your industry association or alumni group, or consider joining a mentoring organization.

Do your research and make yourself visible.

Once you’ve compiled your list of possible mentors, make yourself visible to your top candidates and do some investigating. Find out what you can about each person’s career pathway. Know where he/she has worked and what he/she has accomplished, so you know the right questions to ask. Talk to people who have worked with the person, and use the company intranet/newsletters, the internet, or library resources to find out more. Volunteer for assignments or projects that potential mentors work on so you can showcase your talents. Also, try to find out what that person does outside of work—for example, nonprofit work, boards, etc.—and join if you can. Do good work there that he/she can see.

Make a connection.

At an office or social event, approach your potential mentor. If this opportunity doesn’t come along, arrange a meeting. At the right moment, even a cold call at the person’s office door can work in your favor. Keep your eyes open for that person’s comings and goings, and you might find an opening. When face-to-face with the person, ask a question. Women who’ve had great mentors suggest asking for advice about something related to your career or your work, especially something that might be linked to his/her career. Most people are flattered to be asked for advice. Be sure to prepare the question(s) beforehand, and take notes so you can refer to the responses later.

Start small.

Base your approach to a potential mentor on what you know about him/her and on the kind of relationship you have. Use your judgment. If you’re working with the person, you may know his/her schedule and how much time he/she has available. At first, leave the word “mentor” out of the conversation. Don’t scare off a potential mentor by asking for too much. The person may turn you down if your problem seems too big, so don’t lay all your needs on your potential mentor at first. Let the relationship evolve. Be realistic about what someone can give you, and build your rapport over time. You may want to end your first meeting by asking if the person would be willing to meet with you again to follow up on what you’ve discussed so far. Face-to-face contact creates the closest relationships, but compromise where necessary to get the mentor you want. You might want to develop a phone or email mentoring relationship or one that includes this aspect. Either way, let your mentor know how you’d like the relationship to work and what frequency and type of contact you hope for. If the person turns you down, don’t take it personally. He/she may just be too busy, and you should continue to look for other mentors. Be sureto keep that person in your network, though you never know when he/she will have more time later or can help some other way.

Give back to your mentor.

Follow through. When a mentor has made a suggestion or offered a solution, get back to him/her in person (ideally) or in some appropriate way to let them know how the issue turned out or the progress you’ve made—and thank them for their help.

Remember that a mentor usually has a goal in taking you on, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When starting out, don’t give your mentors the impression that you’re out only to benefit yourself. Let them know of your respect and support, and show that you’re going to be helpful in return. Be loyal. Return favors. Be your mentors’ field agent, and share with them useful information you pick up in circles they may not frequent. Don’t underestimate the value that you can bring to each relationship.

Mentoring relationships are among the keys to a successful career.They become increasingly important as one advances to senior levels in business. Catalyst research consistently demonstrates that having influential mentors and having access to key networks are critical factors in advancement; conversely, lack of access to mentors and exclusion from informal networks are barriers to getting ahead. Addressing these issues at the beginning of your career path will only help you in the long run. It takes practice to get the most out of your mentoring experience(s), and the sooner you make that commitment, the more success you can expect.


This Catalyst article was featured on page 46 in the Sept/Oct 2005 issue of Profiles in Diversity Journal