The value of professional mentors

I wouldn’t be who I am today professionally (or personally) without the mentors in my life. Some have been mentors from formal mentorship programs, but most have been more informal mentoring relationships. And many of them I now call friends.

When I decided to take the plunge and start my own business in 2014, I went on what I called my “mentor tour” back in St. Louis, where I started my professional career and had lots of business contacts. I reached out to several other business owners I knew, told them I was venturing out on my own and asked if we could meet for coffee or lunch to chat.

They told me all of the things they wish they had known when starting out on their own, and they became trusted advisors as I launched my business. They answered my random questions, challenged me when I needed to be challenged and encouraged me along the way.

I’ve been lucky enough to also serve as a mentor to other professional communicators and new business owners. It’s a great opportunity to pass along some lessons learned and help others, whether that’s helping guide a young professional through a job search or advising an entrepreneur on how to handle a challenging client situation.

Here are four tips for finding and working with a professional mentor.

Define what you want

Before you can find a mentor, you need to define what you want from a mentoring relationship. Do you want a mentor who’s in a position you imagine yourself having in a couple years? Or do you want a mentor who’s at an even higher level in your chosen career path? What do you want to learn from that person?

Don’t overthink it

Mentorship doesn’t have to be a formal structure. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. If your company has a mentorship program, chances are there’s at least a little paperwork involved to pair you with a mentor and track your progress. But if you’re seeking out your own mentor, it can be as easy as meeting for coffee on a quarterly basis and talking about your career.

Reach out and ask

All of my mentors have been people I already knew in some capacity, and the mentoring relationship developed over time. That being said, there’s nothing stopping you from reaching out to someone you don’t personally know to ask about mentorship. You’ll want to be clear what sort of time commitment and professional guidance you’re seeking, but it never hurts to ask. If you know someone in common, ask that person to make an initial introduction for you.

Express your gratitude

A mentoring relationship is an investment of time that someone else is making in your future. Be sure to express your appreciation for it! That could mean buying their lunch, sending a thank you note after each meeting or making a donation in their name to a charity they support. And, when the time comes, be sure to pay it forward by serving as a mentor for someone else.

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