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A Mentor of Your Own

By Amy MacMillan

Forging a career path is a long process. It involves evaluating your goals, weighing your options, making difficult decisions, and learning from your experiences so that you can reevaluate and make new choices. There is, however, a shortcut on this path. People all around you have made similar decisions and learned the lessons-and their wisdom is there for the taking.

A mentor can give you input and perspective, but in the end, you need to make the decisions to shape your career. - Nick Semaca
"Having a mentor can provide a wonderful start and building block," says Lois Zachary, author of The Mentor's Guide (Jossey-Bass, 2000). Zachary says mentoring is a partnership. "It's not somebody handing you knowledge. It's someone asking you the questions to enable you to find the answers yourself."

A human touch
Seeking out a mentor is imperative for young people just starting out, maintains Zachary. "A mentor can provide support and a human touch. It's someone who's going to understand you and your goals," she says. A career mentor doesn't have to be in your workplace, but ideally he or she should be in your industry. Most likely, a mentor will be a few years older than you, and adept at managing their own career.

Amy Beard, 29, has relied on several mentors throughout her career as a public relations account supervisor. Her public relations agency, Porter Novelli, had a formal mentoring program in its Washington, D.C., office where she was paired with a mentor who was several levels above her at the company. Her mentor guided her when she had the opportunity to take a transfer to New York. "She helped me clarify the pros and cons, and how it would impact my career. She had some good advice on what to expect," Beard remembers. Beard took the position in New York, and is still good friends with her mentor.

Many other companies also have formal mentoring programs that benefit not only the mentees, but the whole company, according to Nick Semaca, a director at McKinsey & Co.'s Chicago office. McKinsey has a program in which every new consultant is assigned a mentor who has formal responsibility for career development. "[The program] helps us develop our individuals better. It's the ability to help people learn from the collective experiences that we have," he says.

As a mentor, Semaca is assigned to six consultants who he meets with on an individual basis. The mentees are required to meet with Semaca at least twice a year, but he encourages them to seek him out as often as necessary. "Informally, I act as a sounding board and an impartial advisor. I encourage them to come to me whenever there's anything on their mind." And although Semaca says it's up to his mentees to find him, he'll often take a proactive approach - for example, if he hears about a performance issue. He also stresses that a mentor is not there to make decisions for you. "A mentor can give you input and perspective, but in the end, you need to make the decisions to shape your career."

Find your own
If your company doesn't have a formal mentoring program in place, you should seek out your own mentor. First, determine what it is that you'd like to learn. Don't just get a mentor for the sake of having one, Zachary says.

Beard advises looking for someone who's a good listener, but who will also ask you some thoughtful questions. She also suggests finding someone who's trustworthy, with a sense of humor and an "ability to see the big picture." Everyone agrees that any mentor relationship requires trust and, most importantly, rapport. "That can't be forced," Beard says.

Once you've found someone who's agreed to be your mentor, develop some parameters for the relationship, Zachary says. Decide how often and where you will meet. Discuss how you will measure the partnership's progress. Set some career goals for yourself and for the mentoring relationship, and then celebrate those goals when you meet them, she says.

Beard says you can't then sit back and wait for results to happen. Mentoring is like anything else - you will only get out of it what you put into it. She adds that if the mentoring relationship is successful, it will evolve, as all relationships do. "Overall, if it's done well, the mentor becomes more of a colleague than a coach. That's the sign that a good mentoring relationship has done its job," she says.

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