Mentors: How to Find Them and Work with Them

Mentors can help you find the right niche in technology, steer you down the path to success, and link you to a ready-made network of industry contacts. So where do you find them? Start by checking to see if your school has a mentor program, then expand your search to alumni and industry experts.

Whether they come from campus programs, a trade association or you find them yourself, start gathering your own group of experts who can act as a "board of directors" for your career as early as your freshman year.

Look first to your instructors. "Many professors have real life business experience, especially adjunct professors," notes Jeff Thomson, president and chief executive officer of the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA).

Alumni also make great mentors, so check to see if your school has a program like DePaul University’s Alumni Sharing Knowledge (ASK) program, in which students can search for mentors by the industry they work in, the company they work for, their country of origin, their profession or their location. Gillian Steele, managing director for the Career Center at DePaul, says on-campus events as well as student technology club meetings offer opportunities to find mentors.

Real World Resources

Off campus, trade associations at the state and local level offer programs for students including discounted memberships, scholarships, conferences, mentor-matching and networking.

And in today’s world of remote workplaces, social networking sites are another source of mentors. The same trade associations that offer in-person networking events may have online message boards where students can lurk until they get a feel for the site, then present relevant questions and seek out relationships with those who post answers.

Once you’ve signed up for an event, how do you find a mentor in the crowd? "Talk to as many people as you can and look for someone you feel comfortable with, who impresses you," Steele says. "You don’t need to say to someone, ‘Will you mentor me?’ You just tell them you have a lot of respect for them and their knowledge of the area and you’ d like to talk to them about what you’re thinking." Then, you stay in touch.

Once you’ve found your first mentor, don’t stop. Susan Battley, a New York-based executive coach, recommends finding multiple mentors. One person may help with concrete ambitions like learning a new technical skill, while another may be a sounding board for sensitive, interpersonal topics. "Cast a wide net and build a personal advisory board," she recommends.

Build the Relationship

To get the most from your mentor relationships, be sure to select at least one mentor who is different than you, says Chip R. Bell, author of Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning. "People who are different can bring a perspective that can be instructive," he explains.

As you talk with mentors, know what you’re seeking. Early in the relationship, communicate your goals and your expectation for the outcome, Bell says.

If improving performance is on your list of goals, remember you’re going to have to let the mentors see the real you for that to happen. "Make sure that you¿re authentic, real and genuine, and that you show your foibles and less confident side," Bell says. "Only through a genuine relationship is the mentor able to focus on how they can be most helpful."

Be prepared to hear the good, the bad and the truly grim. "Many times when students come out of college they’re a little bit full of themselves," Bell warns. "That sometimes makes it more challenging for students to hear and value feedback and advice, particularly when it’s not what they were expecting to hear."

And no matter how much your mentor’s words cut, the best reply is one that’s accepting, such as: "Thank you. I appreciate your candor. I¿m going to think about that." Denying the problem or giving excuses will only discourage your mentors from giving additional candid advice.

Finally, remember that a mentoring relationship is like a marriage. "Honesty is critical," Bell says. "If it¿s not working, you to need say, "’This is not what I want to do’ and allow both parties to adjust or abandon the relationship."

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