You've worked hard in your IT job, you've attended classes and even have all the latest certifications. Still, your career is stuck in neutral. While dedication, education and training are irreplaceable, sometimes they aren't enough. Sometimes you need a personal touch. Sometimes you can't beat the insight you gain from someone who is where you want to be someday.
After all, when it comes to professional development and career planning who couldn't use a trusted advisor to bounce questions off of? Whether it's something as mundane as how to approach a specific assignment or something more life-altering such as weighing job offers from different companies, having a mentor in your corner who's "been there, done that" can help turn your job into a career.
January marks the celebration of National Mentoring Month, so it's the perfect time to raise your awareness on this often under-used resource.
How Are Mentors Valuable to You?
Mentors are helpful because, in addition to expertise in their field, they have a network of business professionals and, most importantly, they are willing to share what and who they know. People who mentor are likely to have had mentors at some point who helped them understand their industry better, hone their strengths or sharpen skills.
The mentor/ mentee relationship is a symbiotic relationship. "It is important to remember that this is a two-way relationship. While you are looking to benefit from the mentor, you are also looking to help the mentor," says Imad Lodhi, a veteran of IBM and the outsourcing industry.
While many times the mentee seems to get the better part of the deal, the person doing the mentoring gets something out of it, too. He or she can directly impact another person's life for the better. "By helping another person succeed, you help create a brighter future for all of us, and gain the satisfaction of knowing that you have made a difference in someone's life," Lodhi says.
That said, mentees should also do what they can to help their mentors. For example, a younger mentee may be more knowledgeable about building an online brand or being a social influencer. Sharing your knowledge is one way to contribute to the relationship.
What to Look for in a Mentor
"The qualities that make a good mentor are those define a great leader," says Michael R. Spano, a Certified Executive Consultant in the IBM CIO Office and a long-time participant in mentoring. Being insightful and experienced, a good listener and approachable are all qualities to look for.
The mentor you choose should also have a passion for coaching/teaching. "Not all leaders or teachers are great mentors, but all great mentors find ways to teach and inspire, without criticism, and are always supportive," Spano says. When choosing a mentor, look for those qualities, but then observe the person for a while and see if these characteristics stand up.
How Can a Mentor Help Your IT Career?
Having a mentor is important regardless of your age or your position, according to Lodhi,. "Everyone needs someone from the outside to share the insight and experiences to help better ourselves. Mentors can help you establish the 'big picture'," says Lodhi.
According to Spano, the only way to truly enjoy life and be productive is to continuously learn. "The secret, he says, is to "learn the right things at the right time, hence the need for a mentor. "
Having a mentor isn't a one-size-fits-all situation. "It's wonderful if you can't find that one person, but I know a lot of people who have a few [mentors]," says Tracy Cashman, partner and general manager in information technology with WinterWyman, an IT staffing firm that services companies in the Northeast. For example, you may have a mentor for technology questions, who you could ask what types of technologies are hot and another mentor who is an expert with management issues.
Another example may include an IT pro who has worked in IT infrastructure for several years, but wants to move into development. Finding a mentor with strong programming skills could offer insight into what programming languages the company is investing in or what certifications or courses you should take to become more relevant to the company's needs.
"It is critically important to have a mentor in the area of IT. Having a mentor in this environment allows you to see where your business is heading and then you can begin to build your skills and expertise in the areas they will most need you in the coming years," says Spano.
Having a senior person in your company mentor you can really help open doors, whether it's insight into what type of training would be most beneficial to you or more mundane items like how to deal with difficult clients or vendors to vouching for your skills when a new position opens up. "Most of my promotions were a result of mentoring," says Lodhi.
Choosing an IT Mentor
Choosing a mentor is not something to be taken lightly. "A good mentor can be a lifelong asset, and choosing the wrong one wastes both of your time," says Spano. Not only does it need to be a person with the knowledge and skills to help propel your career forward, but you also need to have a certain chemistry with that person.
As a mentee, you must be able to objectively evaluate your skills as well as accept constructive criticism from your mentor. This is the time to put on your strategic-thinking hat and exam your career goals. You need to know your strengths and weakness in order to know where a mentor can provide the most help. "Before you seek a mentor, figure out what your expectations are from the relationship and the areas you want to cover (job search, skills development, confidence building, etc.)," says Spano.
With that knowledge in hand, weigh your strengths and weaknesses against your company's goals. This should give you a pretty good idea of the qualities you are looking for in a mentor. For example, let's say your company makes most if it's sales via salespeople, but the company wants to build a stronger online marketplace to build a new revenue stream. Finding a mentor who deeply understands search engine marketing and optimization could help put you in the fast lane to responsibilities that take you someplace you never expected.
Where Can I Find a Mentor?
The first place to start is your HR department. Find out if it has a formal or informal mentoring program and let a representative know you are interested. There are other places to look as well, Spano says. "The places you can find mentors have improved greatly with the advent of social media. That said, the tried-and-true 'look around you' and networking with friends and colleagues is also a great way," says Spano.
If your company doesn't have a mentoring program and you have the desire to act as an agent of change, then go to your HR representative and tell him or her you'd like to help set up the program. HR's buy-in, like with most career programs, can be a make-it or break-it factor. The worst that can happen is they say no.
Another option: "Not every IT person knows what they want to do in 10 years but if you know what aspect of IT interests you, seek out someone who is in a role you aspire to within your company," says Cashman. Don't confine yourself to just the people you know.
A third option, if you can't find someone at your workplace or within your peer network, is to use professional networking sites to target people in your area who hold the job you are seeking. Social media sites like LinkedIn and Facebook's Branchout are great places to identify mentors and groups with similar interests in your area. Many times simply identifying and asking the right person is all it takes. Again, the worst that can happen is they say no.
How to Get Things Rolling
So you've been introduced and are getting ready to meet with your new mentor. Keep in mind that this is a professional relationship with a business advisor, not a friendship, and it needs to be treated as such. Be on time, have specific questions in mind, keep personal items aside and do your best to keep the meeting on point. Below are 13 tips from Lodhi on how to get things moving:
- Update your resume
- List your goals
- Establish what is expected from mentee and mentor
- Identify frequency of meetings
- Identify how the success of mentoring will be measured
- Agree on how to connect in the interim.
- Agree on ground rules: confidentiality, giving/receiving feedback and so on
- Get to know each other: For example, find out how your mentor got to where he or she is in the company
- Share what you hope to get out of the relationship. What things are you particularly interested in?
- Share your feedback from any assessments. Share a key development area and ask for help and feedback throughout your relationship.
- Share any areas of development you are working on, ask if they've run into similar challenges in their career and what they've done to address them.
- What are they/you reading right now? (e.g., business books, leadership books and so on.)
- Where are areas that you can help them? (e.g., reverse mentoring, research)
How often you meet, the subjects discussed and how best to stay in contact should all be discussed and agreed upon. These will be different depending on goals and scheduling. "There will be times when a short-term goal is looming and you need to meet more often," Spano says. Regardless, you should establish a schedule and be flexible.
Obtaining and working with a mentor can seem like a daunting task, but you've got to start somewhere. Look around and see what resources are available to you. You may not have to go very far. But even if you do, most IT pros who have had mentors find that the mileage was worth it. You may end up somewhere you never anticipated.
We'd love to hear about your mentoring stories be it good or bad and as always we welcome feedback.