This blog is on topics of interest to early career professionals who work with people with disabilities. Blog contributors have diverse perspectives on leadership, professional development, and success in changing systems to better serve people with disabilities and their families. For more information on Early Career Professionals, check out the website: www.aucd.org/ecp

10 December, 2012

Making a Mentor Magically Appear




Katie Arnold, MS
 Director of Community Education, Illinois UCEDD
Executive Director, Sibling Leadership Network


Common advice for early career professionals is to find a mentor.  Sounds easy, right?!  As a young professional, eager to learn and passionate about making a difference, I figured I was a prime target for a mentor to walk right up to me and say “you are the person I have been waiting for to share my knowledge and wisdom.”  However, it is not that easy and takes some work and determination on your part to find mentors throughout your career.  I have had great mentors along the way to get me to where I am today.  Yet, I have been surprised at how much effort it takes to make these connections and foster these relationships.  Here are some things I have learned.

The mentoring relationship
The mentoring relationship is often a professional relationship where a mentor is an experienced person who provides guidance to help the mentee develop skills and knowledge which enhance personal and professional growth.  There are different types of mentors for different things—some are more knowledgeable about content expertise, others have key leadership skills for you to learn, and some can show you the ropes to navigate relationships and systems.  It is useful to have different types of mentors for different areas as you develop in your life and career.  Some of these relationships may be more formal and clearly articulated as mentor/mentee relationships, while others could be informal and the person may not even know s/he is a mentor to you or you may not even realize that you are being mentored.  Some people may not seem like mentors at the time, though upon reflection they provided amazing insights that you will keep with you throughout your career.

Connecting with a mentor
Finding a mentor that provides you with the guidance and knowledge you need to develop can be difficult.  And, you may need to look to various people to fill different roles for you.  Sometimes, a mentor might seem perfect on paper (through all the writings s/he has authored) and not be the right fit for you when you get together in person.  You may not always “click” with a person regardless of how much you respect his or her work.  Other times, you may have someone in mind that could be a great mentor, but that person is just too busy to provide the time you want and need as a mentee.   

Start out by making a list of the people you consider to be mentors right now.  Are there ways for you to enhance this mentor relationship?  Does this person know you consider him/her to be a mentor?  Would it help to articulate the type of relationship you are hoping for or is it not necessary? 

Next, make a list of any areas that you would like to grow and develop.  Are there people that you know who could be a good fit for these areas?  You don’t always need to ask someone formally to serve as a mentor, though most often, people are flattered to be asked.  It is a sign that you value their advice and guidance and think you can learn from them.  

Keep in mind that not everyone knows how to be a good mentor.  For some people, it can be a new and unfamiliar role.  Sometimes, it can help for you to be specific about what you are hoping to gain from the relationship.  You may want to suggest regular get-togethers or ways to connect that would be helpful to you and possible for your mentor. 

Make the most of your time together
What do you do when you get together with your mentor?  Should you tell him or her about your life and experiences?  Should you ask questions and absorb every bit of knowledge and wisdom from this person?  Yes and yes!  Think strategically about the skills and knowledge you hope to learn from your mentor and hone in on these in your interactions.  You may be connecting with your mentor in the office, over a beverage or meal, while taking a walk, via phone, email, or skype.  Figure out what works for you and your mentor to connect regularly or when you need guidance and advice. 

Be sure to tell your mentor how helpful s/he is to you.  Show your appreciation.  Thank you notes go a long way so consider writing a thank you card every once in a while.  Try to keep in touch with your mentors over the years by providing him/her with updates on how you are doing. 

Give back—Become a mentor
Even though you may be early in your career, you can still become a mentor to someone else.  The knowledge and skills that you have gained so far will be useful to share with others, so think about who you could mentor.  As someone who has been mentored, you have a good understanding of how to mentor others.  Think about what worked well for you and what did not really work.  Create an open dialogue with your mentee.  Pay it forward.