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Mentorship: How to Build a Successful Mentor Relationship

By Helen Woodhouse, Global Field Marketing Manager - Sopra Financing Platform, Sopra Banking Software. Editor: Jacob Fahl, VP Funding & Portfolio Services, Hitachi Capital America Corp. This resource is part of the Career Development series developed by the ELFA Emerging Talent Advisory Council. Learn more at www.elfaonline.org/industry-topics/emerging-talent.

MentoringMentorship has long been a useful tool for aspiring leaders in industry, and many companies offer structured programs to help their staff grow and succeed. However, it can take time and resources for companies to set up such a program. If a structured program doesn’t yet exist within your workplace, have you considered proactively creating a mentorship relationship with someone you respect and admire?

While some of us have a clear direction mapped out in our heads we’d like our careers to take, some of us may be less clear, enjoying the journey to see where it takes us and staying open to whichever opportunities cross our paths. A mentorship where you can learn from someone’s experience and knowledge (and thus benefit from their guidance) can be extremely valuable whether or not you’re on a certain career path yet.

So how could your approach to creating a mentor relationship differ depending on how you view your career path currently?

When creating a mentor relationship, one of the key issues is to align your goals to someone with the right knowledge and experience to help. So it’s important to establish how you view your career path and future before engaging a mentor.

Do you have a focused goal, or future role in mind? If not, it’s perfectly ok to be open-minded, but it can take some wider thought before engaging a mentor.

“ Having a mentor can put you firmly on the road to success, whether you have focused career goals or not.”

Focused Career Goal

If you feel more focused on your career path, a clear list of goals and choice of mentor can be critical:

  • With your ideal career goal(s) in mind, create a list of stepping stones or sub-goals you need help achieving. Consider how exactly someone could help you with these and refine into a clear list of goals for the relationship itself, including where the boundaries should be set. That way you can create clarity from the offset with potential mentors.
  • Choose your mentor carefully. Who in your business, industry or network has achieved these goals and can help you achieve them? Look for someone who has not only achieved similar goals, but has climbed the ladder well, has good relationships, is widely respected and is not over-burdened already!
  • Take care not to create conflicts of interest. Your boss may seem an obvious option, but this may not allow you to create the safe space needed, or another senior person who is directly involved with your department. Look for someone with a healthy distance away from your functional area.
  • Be open-minded to different mentorship structures. Be open to a mentorship team or co-mentor—this could help expedite your success, and a lot of senior people have many competing priorities! Being involved in projects can alone introduce you to interesting people to learn from. It doesn’t have to be super formal.

Open-Minded Career path

If you’re open-minded, even unsure about the direction your career could take, spend some time considering exactly how specific mentors could help you:

  • Create a list of potential roles or business areas that could appeal to you career-wise: What areas of the business sound interesting to you? What are you passionate about and how could that passion translate into a business success? Are there areas in which you would like to expand your knowledge? Are there any areas that seem beneficial to build on for your resume? For example, do all the senior team have specific experience in one particular area?
  • Create a short list of possible mentors and what each could bring to the table. Consider how you could use specific mentors to help fill any gaps in your skillset and broaden your knowledge to create a solid springboard for many paths.
  • Consider recruiting multiple mentors. This could be for fixed periods of time such as six months. Just be careful not to engage too many mentors at one time. This could mean you lose focus on what you’re trying to achieve with each mentor and could leave you short of time and attention.
  • Communicate your intentions clearly (to your mentor, your boss and other stakeholders). Be clear that mentorship outside of your current duties is a commitment to self-improvement and learning. Taking on additional tasks, even being a mentee, can create more work for yourself so be sure you’re not spreading yourself too thin.

In addition, some general points to remember for all successful mentorship relationships:

  • Remember these relationships won’t always be easy! Don’t expect mentors to always tell you what you want to hear. They are there to objectively support you and help you achieve your goals, not be your “yes” person! Disagreements may happen, but if you can communicate honestly and resolve them constructively, this makes for a great mentor/mentee relationship.
  • Create a structure and timeline for the relationship. Remember the ball is in your court to drive the relationship and create the value you expect from it. Once you’ve selected a mentor, create a schedule of meetings, a time-driven agenda for each meeting and a timeline for success. Be careful not to overload your mentor.
  • Agree on your ground rules and channels for communication. This will ensure the time is used well for both of you and you are aware of each other’s boundaries.
  • Beware of factors that could indicate an unhealthy mentorship relationship. Indicators such as taking credit for your ideas, asking you to help on their projects, disrespecting your timelines and hindering your progress, discouraging you in growing other mentor relationship, or allowing you to repeat mistakes could indicate the relationship isn’t fully mutual.

Having a mentor can put you firmly on the road to success, whether you have focused career goals or not. It can provide many benefits at all stages of your career, and particularly when you’re starting out, looking to get that next promotion or changing course.

The ELFA Women’s Council recently launched a pilot mentoring program. More information about the program will be presented at the ELFA Women’s Leadership Forum in April 2022 in Chicago. Reach out to staff liaison Amy Vogt at avogt@elfaonline.org for more information.

Get the most out of your ELFA membership and grow your career: Learn about the Emerging Talent Advisory Council and access additional career development resources on the Emerging Talent page.