Getting A Helping Hand

How to choose and get the most out of mentors

Whether you’re at the beginning of your career or in its later stages, a mentor can be an invaluable guide, providing just the right advice and contacts to kick start your career to the next level.
“My mentoring experiences exposed me to executives, activities and projects I otherwise may not have had access to,” says Antoinette M. Malveaux, executive director of the National Black MBA Association in Chicago. Prior to joining the Association, Malveaux had mentors at American Express Bank and Bank of America.

While at American Express, Malveaux says her mentors encouraged her to hone her skills in management decision-making by assigning her projects that required a lot of strategic planning. “They made sure I understood corporate political issues and the ramifications of what was aging on behind the scenes, and assigned projects that pushed and nurtured me.”

Today, career climbers need mentors both inside and outside their organization with advanced experience and skills to both guide and advise. But how do you find a mentor? Professional organizations are a good place to start, and your place of employment can be fertile ground.

According to a recent report by Society for Human Resource Management, mentors should have at least five to 10 years more experience than their proteges. They should also be:

  • Sincerely interested in your career development;
  • Well positioned within their organization, with responsibilities and control over certain business functions;
  • Well respected for their work ethic, integrity and capabilities;
  • People you can relate to and trust.

“It certainly helps to have a mentor with similar experiences,” says Norman Jenkins, president of the Washington, D.C., Chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants and director of finance for Marriott International in Baltimore. In recent months, Jenkins has established mentoring programs for NABA and Marriott. He adds that one mentor is not enough. Seek out several mentors with strengths in different areas–interpersonal abilities or technical specifics of your profession–for broad-based experiences.

You may be fortunate enough to have a mentor make the initial contact in establishing a relationship. Set the stage for this to occur by taking on challenging projects that demonstrate your leadership know-how, says Malveaux. “You don’t have to be overly aggressive, but don’t be modest about your skills and talents either. Let them be seen. Don’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder.”

Commitment, mutual respect and willingness to learn from one another make for a good mentor/protege relationship. To aid in the success of the partnership, goals and expectations should be set by both parties at the outset. Jenkins, who has been on both sides of the table as a member and protege, says, “Mentors must be honest and [proteges] must be open to candid feedback.”

Once the mentoring relationship has gotten off the ground, be prepared to handle projects not necessarily within your realm of expertise. Good mentors trust their proteges and encourage them to be resourceful in getting the job done. In some instances, the protege should also be prepared to deal with envious or jealous co-workers and associates. “You have to be ready for

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