I was new to management and didn't want to make a great blunder on my first client assignment. I knew if I went to my manager she would help me solve the problem. But I wanted to be prepared with a recommended plan of action. So I picked up the phone and called a former manager who I considered to be my mentor. After a short conversation, he had provided me with the guidance I needed to make a solid decision and retain our client.
Having access to a mentor can truly help your career blossom. But how do you find mentors? Unfortunately, you can't quite look up MENTORS-R-US in the yellow pages. However, there are some proactive steps you can take to build these relationships, both within your organization and externally.
First, Look Within
First start internally and check to see if your organization has a formal mentorship program. If not, step up to the plate and recommend starting a program to your manager or HR. A formal, internal mentoring program can work very well for a medium to large organization that has the human resources and education resources to implement and manage such a program.
For a perspective on how a large technology company approaches mentorship, I spoke with Jenn Mann, human resources manager at SAS, a provider of business intelligence and analytics software. She is working on a formal mentorship program for the research and development group, but has also found great success in various informal mentorship and leadership initiatives.
"We initially were focused on delivering management development programs offered through our internal SAS University and over time realized we had to do more to find and develop leaders," says Mann. "The HR team has worked in partnership with SAS University over the past year to build a succession management program for high-potential employees."
A formal program establishes a process to identify future leaders using indicators of success, such as how they measure up to company core competencies and core values. But how does the process work? Mann says management buy-in is critical.
"We could not find our high-potential staff without the active participation of our front-line managers. They participate in a performance management program where we set corporate goals and strategies," says Mann. "As part of that process we assess individuals that are showing behaviors of potential success. We simply put names on a white board and debate each persons' experiences."
So how do you get noticed if interested in this type of program? Be the squeaky wheel and make sure your manager and HR know that you have an interest in participating. Approach this like any job interview and be prepared to back up your interest with reasons why you should be considered. Most important, make sure you are exceeding expectations with your daily job responsibilities. No one will care about your leadership aspirations if your project is going into the toilet.
Once in the program, be prepared for a rigorous, but mutually beneficial process. You are advancing your career, while the company is grooming a future executive. Mann says, "We actually complete an exercise where the VPs and directors in the company deliver a presentation on how they would operate the first 60 days as CTO."
Seek 'Face Time' With Sponsor
A successful mentoring program will most likely have an executive sponsor. Take any opportunity to get face time with your program's sponsor. A sponsor at the highest echelons gives credence to the program and makes it clear it is considered a pathway to advancement within the company. At SAS, Mann says it is well known that the CEO, Dr. Jim Goodnight, is a strong believer in mentoring potential leaders.
"Dr. Goodnight takes the time to have periodic informal lunches with small groups of 'high potentials' to show his support and provide his own valuable insights," says Mann.
Now what if you work for a small company or your organization is not interested in pursuing a formal mentorship program? Don't worry, you can still find external mentors. Start by asking if there is a particular group you identify yourself with. There are many volunteer programs that promote group mentoring and leadership programs for those with similar interests or backgrounds.
Mann provided the example of a group involved in advancing female leadership in technology. "SAS demonstrates the embracement of diversity with over half of our management team being female," she said. "We recently encouraged women managers to attend a six-month initiative with female leadership figures where they could share experiences. More important, they could start forming their own relationships with other like-minded aspiring individuals in their group."
Mann pointed out that one of the women who attended theses forums was promoted, thanks to the coaching she received from fellow participants as she navigated the management interview process. "She strongly believed that this experience increased her confidence that she was qualified to lead and could handle the position," says Mann.
Cultivating a personal mentorship will require more proactive actions on your part. Do not be afraid to approach someone you respect in your industry and ask them if you can bounce ideas off of them from time to time. Successful people may be busy, but they generally are willing to take time to share their experiences. They can only say yes or no. If yes, you are in business. If no, that is one more successful person that knows you have motivation and goals, which may pay off down the road.
Try to meet with your mentor at least quarterly to review issues you are dealing with. Just the act of talking through your decision-making process can help refine your plans. General discussion with your mentor about their experiences can open doors to problem-solving approaches and new ideas that never crossed your mind.
If you successfully leverage your mentor's shared wisdom, it won't be long before your phone is ringing with an aspiring acquaintance asking for your own guidance on an important decision.