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November 26, 2006
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Get good mentors by building relationships

If you want to succeed in business you need a mentor. Getting one though, requires patience, a clear focus and the self-confidence to be a nudge.

The multigenerational workplace seems like it would be fertile ground for mentoring. “Generation Y grew up in an environment where parents, teachers and counselors were all about building the self-esteem of children,” says Bruce Tulgan, CEO of RainmakerThinking, “There was a lot of conditioning to engage in a mentoring type of relationship.”

Young people are great at asking for help - in fact renowned for doing things a boomer would never do, like approaching the CEO to ask for a meeting to share ideas, and networking relentlessly up and down the organization.

But older folks are not so keen on mentoring - even though it has been shown to improve the career of the mentor as well as the mentee.

“Baby boomers say, ‘I went out into the world and I had my youthful rebellion. You should have seen me!’” Tulgan explains. “Then they get all wistful and say they, “But I went back to the real world and paid my dues and it was sink or swim and no one held my hand.’”

So while getting workplace mentors should be very easy, it’s not.

Here are some tips on how to get and keep a mentor.

1. Look for someone just two or three years ahead of you. Those people will remember what you’re going through, so they’ll give you good tactical advice. Also, young people are very team-oriented, and they grew up with social networking tools, so they are easier to rope into a mentoring relationship than someone older.

In April 2005, Zak Zielezinski, 22, and some friends started an entrepreneurship club at Clark University, and from that, they started a company. One of older students in the club directed Zielezinski to a professor who could help him, and from that interaction, Zielezinski’s company, Interactive Purchasing Solutions was born.

2. Do great work, because potential mentors want to help stars. Ian Ybarra is a good example of someone who does great work wherever he goes, so he attracts mentors who help his career.

Chris Resto hired Ybarra to help him with a consulting job. Ybarra, who was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was smart, organized, and motivated, and “the reward for good work is more work,” says Resto.

He gave Ybarra more challenging assignments, which Ybarra also did well, so when Resto became head of UPOP, an internship program at MIT, he hired Ybarra as his assistant. Ybarra quickly showed great talent for writing, so Resto gave him more work along those lines. “Finally we had to hire an office assistant because he became the writer,” says Resto.

Ybarra got an internship at Inc. magazine, and once again, did such a high level of work that he attracted a mentor who gave him the opportunity to write a bylined piece for the magazine.

“He probably wrote more of it than I did,” says Ybarra. But it gave Ybarra the opportunity impress Tahl Raz enough that he helped Ybarra get a writing and editing job with business consultant and author Keith Ferrazzi, who, fittingly, is the co-author with Raz of a popular book on relationship building, Never Eat Alone.

3. Figure out goals first, before hitting up a mentor. If you have no idea what questions to ask, it might be because you don’t know what you’re doing. This is career coach territory, not mentoring territory. “A mentor is someone who champions you, opens doors, exposes you to new opportunities. And external career coach cannot do that,” says Jo Miller, CEO of Women’s Leadership Coaching. “But a career coach is good at goal setting, putting plans into action and moving forward.”

Once your goals are established, then you can go to a mentor with a specific topic in mind, says Miller. “The mentee should drive the conversation,” she says. Importantly, ask for help determining the skills you need to get to where you want to go. Then get some tactical advice on how to develop them.

4. Build deep relationships that will help you on multiple levels. “There are two kinds of mentors. The instrumental mentors give practical help, and the socio-emotional mentors look to build your confidence and let you know they believe in you. A good mentor is like being a parent. They try to customize the experience of the protégés so the protégés gains new capabilities,” says Faye Crosby, professor of psychology at University of California at Santa Cruz.

You can build a great network of contacts, but when you have a crisis in confidence you need someone who is emotionally invested in you. To cultivate that emotional investment, keep in touch; a mentor follows your career over a long period of time. Send updates about what you’re doing, offer congratulations on the mentor’s big moves and be on the lookout for quick little ways to build a long, meaningful relationship.

Ybarra and Resto are a good example of how to keep a relationship strong over time. When Ybarra left MIT, he kept in touch with Resto, and now they are collaborating on a book about how companies can more effectively recruit young people.

Resto is the expert on recruiting and Ybarra, along with friend Ramit Sethi, provide expertise on what young people want. And this story illustrates perhaps the most important and most enticing aspect of mentoring: That the best relationships allow both people to grow.


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Posted to: Mentoring


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7 Comments »

thanks for remembering to tell me about the column. You did a great job! And I too enjoyed talking to you. Hope our paths cross again some day. In the meantime, congratulations on your great work.

Excellent subject, well-written and well worth reading… Good job Penelope!

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Penelope Trunk is a columnist at the Boston Globe. She has launched three startups and endured an IPO, a merger and a bankruptcy. more >

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