Monday, June 29, 2009

Need a Shove?

One of the common threads I've found when interviewing people who have lost their jobs over the last year is the optimism most of them feel when they're first laid off. That lasts for about four or five months. Then, you can hear it in their voices: they're scared and frustrated and feel very, very alone.

I've been without work so I know how they feel. But recently I did a story on mentors -- how they can help your career not only when you have a job, but especially when things aren't going so hot. And while no one was portraying the mentoring experience as all fun and games -- it takes a lot of hard work and sometimes your mentor drives you a bit batty -- those I interviewed credited mentors with adding a lot to their lives.

I think we've all got to invest more in ourselves, no matter what our employment status. We need people in our corner, through good times and bad. Without those relationships, I think we risk making unnecessary mistakes, of letting good opportunities pass us by because of our own ignorance or perhaps our own fear. As this story show, mentoring may be just what we need:

Sometimes in our careers we need a kick in the pants. We need someone to push us, to make us see what’s possible and how we can get there. For people like Linda Swindling, that point came in college. For Christopher Wright, it came when he was enduring a job he hated.

Both turned to mentors. People in their lives who came along, saw their strengths and weaknesses – and for no pay at all – gave them invaluable advice that helped them land at better places in their career.

Now, at a time when most of us are confused and stressed about our jobs and career paths, mentoring programs appear to be more popular than ever – even employers are seeing the value in offering such support to employees.

Beth Carvin, CEO and president of Nobscot Corp., a retention management consulting firm in Honolulu, says that the company’s mentoring division, Mentor Scout, is currently doing a booming business. The program helps companies set up mentoring programs.

“It’s a way for companies to develop their talent, and it’s cost effective because they’re utilizing their resources internally,” Carvin says. “We’re seeing a huge growth in mentoring.”

Currently, about 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer mentor programs, but experts say no one in this economy should wait for an employer to find them a mentor.
“A lot of people don’t even think of it until they lose a job,” Carvin says. “You really need to think of it when you have a job.”

Swindling, a Dallas-based speaker and author, says that she’s used mentors since her college days, and still relies on them. “Mentors have really given me a push when I need it. They remind me of stuff I’m not doing and give me a different perspective,” she says.

Wright credits his mentor from decades ago with giving him the skills he needed to run his own mechanical engineering practice. “He was very open about what he was doing and very patient with my persistent questions and in helping me fix my mistakes,” Wright says.

Still, even with the fond memories for Swindling and Wright, both say that those going into a mentoring relationship need to understand it’s not always enjoyable.

“The truth is that just like with any relationship, there are downsides. My mentor got impatient with me at times, and there were times when I felt he could be too verbose. He could be maddeningly discursive,” Wright says.

Swindling adds: “You find some people who say they can help you and they’re lying. They just want you to help them sell their stuff. They want to use you.”
If you’re considering a mentoring relationship, those interviewed for this story have some advice. They say you should:

1.Plan ahead. “Nobody wants to just have you walk up to them and say, ‘I want you to be my mentor.’ You’ll freak them out. Tell them that you have a problem, and what you need from them in terms of help,” Swindling says. “Different mentors can be used for different aspects of your life. Don’t ask someone to do it all.”

Carvin adds that you should review your past jobs and relationships, weighing the best person to help you. A former boss? A Co-worker? Someone from an industry group? “Be thoughtful when you contact them, saying who you are, why you have chosen them and what you hope to gain. Also talk about what you expect from them in terms of time,” Carvin says.

2.Be patient. “It took a while to get close to my mentor. It was about two or three years before we really trusted one another. I trusted him to respond to my stupid questions, and he trusted me to ask about the things I didn’t know,” Wright says. “We were completely honest with one another.”

While not all mentoring relationships last for years, and may only be in place to complete a specific goal or project. Swindling, who now often serves as a mentor herself, says that mentoring is very time consuming so you must always be respectful and decide what would be the best use of the mentor’s time. “Sometimes I’ll say to someone who wants my help: ‘What are the top two things that we need to discuss?’”

3.Be realistic. “Keep in mind that rarely is the mentor going to be able to give you a job or introduce you to the person who has an immediate need. More likely, the mentor will help you down the path quicker and with more insight, which can later give you an edge on other job seekers,” Swindling says.

She also points out that mentors can help you submit a resume at a “higher level” and protect you from “automatic outs” like a spelling error on your resume.

4.Be observant. “I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to a convention and been seated right next to someone who can help me,” Swindling says. “People love to give back.”

Wright says he met his longtime mentor – who has since passed away – when he drove him back to his hotel after a business meeting. “We must have sat in the car and talked for an hour and a half. Then he offered me a job,” Wright says. “You can’t always have that kind of chemistry with a mentor, but that trust is critical.”

Notes Carvin: “Different mentors can offer you different kinds of help. The key is to always be looking, to always know what you need.”

What do you think is the key to having a positive mentoring experience?


David Benjamin said...


Another great post with an important topic.

Mentoring is on the rise from my view. More people are sharing their skillset in exchange or other goods or services. The barter system is back and mentoring, sharing of knowledge is happening more and more.

While there are still traditional mentoring where you have the teacher and the pupil, in today's world I see more sharing of expertise in the form of mentoring.

Anita said...

What an interesting way to look at part of a "barter system." I think that really fits, and have to agree that maybe mentoring fell off (from laziness or perhaps because it seemed to0 old fashioned?), but now people are really embracing it. Whether you're looking for work, wanting to move up the career ladder, or even starting your own business, mentoring makes a lot of sense right now. Thanks for adding such interesting comments.

Ian Tang said...

These are great advise, I could never figure out the approach to get a mentor. It always seem weird to just ask for mentorship.

What would you do if you already know the person, how can one ask for someone to be a mentor? Do you just bring up the topic & ask? or it has to be completely natural?

P.S. Even though this can't replace mentorship, Blogs (like this one) & Podcasts are great semi-mentoring resource.

Anita said...

First, many thanks for your kind comments about this blog. It makes me feel great to know that it's adding to the body of knowledge you seek for your career.
Second, I think you ask a great question, which is about how to start the mentor/mentee conversation. I think since you already know the person, you could say something like, "You know, I really respect your work and admire what you've done with your career. I've got a problem/issue that I would really appreciate getting some advice from you about. Do you think you might have some time in the coming days/weeks to give me some feedback/advice?"

Kathryn/ said...

Oh, Anita, I don't know how I would have made it for 30 years now working as a publicist without those folks I can turn to for the inevitable bumps. (Read, if you are in business, you will hit bumps. Period.) I am SO grateful to them for sharing their expertise and wisdom with me. I think we all mentor each other. I'm better at some stuff. Someone else is better at something else. We know that. We turn to each other for perspective and balance, knowing our weak areas and seeking to round out those areas through these wonderful wonderful blessings in our lives.

Anita said...

You express that wonderfully..."seeking to round out" the areas where we need help. That's why so many people say that not only is getting a mentor a wonderful idea -- but they love being mentors as well. Thanks for adding such insightful comments.