Picking a mentor

Your boss may assign a mentor to help you integrate smoothly into the organisation. A mentor can be a powerful aid to your early success, but, if not picked carefully, they can also do a lot of damage.

What makes an ideal mentor?

Ideally, a mentor will:

  • Be one or two levels above your grade
  • Be in a related area, and have reasonable knowledge of your department or discipline, although they need not have done the same job
  • Have been in the organisation long enough to have a thorough grasp of the culture, processes and politics
  • Be personally popular and credible, so that they can help you build networking links and make introductions for you.

Who shouldn’t be a mentor?

A mentor may be inappropriate if they:

  • Did some or all of the job immediately before you
  • Are significantly winding down to retirement
  • Have not been with the organisation for very long (two years is about the minimum)
  • Do not have any significant political credibility or popularity within the organisation
  • Could be seen as significantly partisan or having a personal or political position to maintain which could impact your job, eg to maintain the status quo rather than support change.

Finding a mentor

If you have the opportunity to pick or specify a mentor for yourself, think in terms of:

  • What you want to achieve right now: different mentors can be useful to help you achieve different career objectives. Mentors aren’t one-size-fits-all, and different people will be able to support you to do different things
  • What you need this person to do for you: whether it’s helping you settle in, introducing you to key players, providing direct instruction or helping you drive a particular project or initiative
  • How long you will need this support for: strong candidates for mentorship are often turned off by the idea that they will be shackled to a mentee for years at a time. Three months is often enough

Being asked to be a mentor is a mixed blessing. It’s a big compliment, but it can also imply a considerable commitment of time. Most mentors would be delighted to receive a neatly limited invitation such as: “Please would you consider being my mentor for three months through x challenge? I’d like to achieve y thing, and I think I could do it much more effectively with some guidance from you. I’d envisage a meeting every two weeks over coffee or lunch, and I’m buying.”

If your mentor doesn’t suit you

Don’t feel obliged to continue to see a mentor who doesn’t suit you. Think about (or ask) why your manager picked this person, and make absolutely sure you are not missing any important learning from them. Then, if you are sure there is no more value to be gained at this time, agree with your manager (if they set up the arrangement) that you will park the relationship for a while or reduce its frequency. At your next meeting, thank the mentor for all their input and say you feel confident enough to go it alone for a while. Leave things on good terms, so that you can arrange to see them again if you need to.

Alternatively, you may choose to keep this mentorship arrangement and add others to support different objectives.

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