Monday, September 22, 2014

How to Find A Mentor

The other day I was telling my friends a story that an old mentor told me, and I realized me saying "my mentor" was about as specific as Henry VIII of England saying "my ex-wife". Even though I learned all sorts of theories in school, the moment I stepped foot into a real office I needed somebody to show me the ropes and teach me how to actually do what I had practiced so many times in theory. Many work environments have assigned mentors or particularly helpful people who will watch out for you. But if they don't, finding a mentor can be a scary proposition.

Here's some tips I've learned over the years about finding mentors:

No "Define The Relationship" talk is required. Before I started full time work, I read a lot of books which suggested walking into someones office and asking if they would be your mentor. A mentor and mentee relationship doesn't have to be a formalized process involving three letters of recommendation, weekly progress reports, and regular meetings. In my mind, a mentor is just somebody who you can count on to provide guidance. In engineering, I've noticed a lot of experienced people can be intimidated by the idea of having a formalized mentoring relationship because of the time commitment required. By just casually asking questions when you need help, you get to avoid an awkward conversation and most people are more than happy to spare a few minutes here and there to help you.

Nobody wants to deal with this awkward moment

Have multiple mentors. In most environments, everyone has something different at which they excel. Each mentor you have can offer a different perspective on your work and your career, and splitting the work of mentoring makes your personal improvement less of a burden on the mentors themselves. You don't have one professor in college, so why learn exclusively from one person after you graduate? Identify what you want to improve about yourself, and find someone (or multiple people!) to help you do that.

Don't limit yourself by your job description. Sometimes the mentor that you need for a specific task is not in your department. Sometimes they are not even an engineer. For example, I've learned a lot from the union workers and technicians about how parts actually function in the real world (not just on paper), and I've learned from administrative assistants how I can fast track processes.

Communicate your questions clearly. If you are worried about seeming incompetent for a question you need to ask, pretending you know what you are doing could lead to disaster. You can always ask questions by saying "I understand that *basic information about how the system works*, but I was wondering if you know how *specific question*". By stating what you know as part of the question it both gives relevant background and shows that you are competent.

Ask your own questions. While asking questions is not a bad thing, being the funnel for answers is not a great thing either. When you are new somebody asks you a question you can't answer, give them the information to try to ask the question themselves.

Thank mentors for their time. It's common sense, but when people take time out of their day to help you succeed, make sure you at least say "thank you".

Mentor somebody else. If you expect for other people to help you, remember to give back to the circle of mentoring by helping someone else out. That can mean helping other people learn something you do well, even if they are generally considered more experienced than you. For example, I taught one of my technical mentors how to write basic scripts in Excel.

Mentors are not always right. Getting mentored is great, accepting facts without questioning and understanding them is not. Like all human beings, even mentors can be wrong. So make sure you think about the advice critically.



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