A graduate guide to getting a mentor

“A mentor? That’s a little bit X factor isn’t it? Are you coming over all Cheryl Cole or Gary?”

I always enjoy my sister’s reaction to my blog, through gritted teeth, but her comment above made me realise how the idea of a mentor has become fairly mainstream recently. Bear with me, but I think X Factor is a good example of the benefits of a suitable mentor – an industry ‘expert’ providing advice and guidance to people wanting to progress within their chosen career.

Over the course of my career in waste management I’ve had a number of mentors, some more successful than others but each fulfilling a separate role. Access to a mentor has allowed me to develop not just professionally but personally as well.

So where do you start?

First of all, have a good think about what you’d like to gain from a mentor. Would you benefit from workplace advice that will help you get the promotion you’d like or develop new technical skills? Are you wanting to change discipline, career or sector and would like to find more information or network with more people? Do you need to develop your executive skills or are you a budding entrepreneur looking to avoid the pitfalls of business by learning from someone who’s been there and done that?

What do you need to think about before you approach someone?

Think about exactly what help you’re looking for and what sort of commitment you need (ideally). Are you looking for a long-term relationship or do you have a particular goal in mind that can be achieved over a shorter time period?

Time will be an important issue. The type of experienced individual you’re looking for is likely to be very busy so you need to ensure that any time they consider dedicating to you will be well spent and productive for both parties. Asking for too much of their time initially may be a little offputting for them but you also need to be honest about what commitment you’re looking for.

Where should you look?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a mentor’s directory that you can refer to or a button on LinkedIn that will automatically direct you to a suitable list. The type of advice you require will direct you to where you might find an appropriate mentor. For industry advice I’ve contacted the professional institute I belong to (the Chartered Institute of Waste Management) which has introduced me to willing mentors. For careers advice within my organisation I’ve spoken to senior management within my team and other disciplines to get alternative perspectives. I’ve also approached people directly that I’ve wanted specific advice from.

Are they suitable mentor material?

Not everyone can teach and the same ethos applies to mentors as well. Not everyone is suited to being a mentor or may not be able to deliver exactly what you’re looking for. Keep this in mind as it can be difficult to know until you’ve started to work together.

When I’m looking for a mentor I try to identify someone I believe has similar personal values as myself and has the skills I aspire to have. I also look for someone I think will stretch me and challenge me to enable me to achieve more than I think I’m capable of. These may be lofty aspirations and you may not find a single person who ticks all your boxes but it’s worth keeping these in mind when you’re looking.

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