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How to Find and Cultivate a Business Mentor

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An increasing number of organizations offer mentoring programs, which have been shown to strengthen internal networks, increase retention and boost recruitment. But if your employer doesn't provide a formal mentor program, you're on your own. Or perhaps you think a business mentor outside your organization would provide important perspective and connections for networking. You can identify and cultivate a business mentor by following these four steps.

Articulate your goals

Sure, we all want to advance in our careers and win big promotions. But if you're going to be successful at working with a business mentor, you'll need to be more specific.

Do you want to learn a specific skill? Perhaps it's how to manage meetings better or more effective communication and presentation. Maybe you need to understand better the balance sheet aspect of your organization, and how each unit contributes to the bottom line.

You may be seeking out a business mentor to gain exposure to other companies because you've worked for the same employer your entire career. Or perhaps you've just taken on a new leadership role and want support and guidance during the transition. It may even be that you're struggling with work-life balance and could use road-tested advice.

List your ideal mentor qualities

Your goals will flow naturally into a list of the skills, experience and attributes of the mentor who is the right fit for you. If you're looking for meeting management, seek out someone who's a whiz at staying on the agenda while encouraging input from all participants. If work-life balance is your challenge, you may want to find another working mom who can understand the challenges you face.

Be sure to include practicalities in your wish list, like whether the mentor is geographically close to you and has time currently to mentor someone. You may want to divide the list into "must-haves" and "nice-to-haves" so that it will be easier to make the inevitable tradeoffs.

Network your way to the right business mentor.

Now you're in the perfect position to tap your networks. Instead of asking people who they know who might be a good mentor, you can specifically list that you want someone with operations experience and at least 20 years post-degree, or an empathetic, nurturing personality. Or perhaps you can specify that you're looking for someone with a commanding leadership style, who's unafraid of challenging assignments.

You can rely on your Rolodex or network via LinkedIn as long as you remember the important rules of networking: be courteous and follow up. Never ask someone for an introduction unless you intend to make use of that contact.

Negotiate the mentor relationship.

Finally, you'll meet with the prospective mentor to see whether you're a good fit. Most likely this will be over coffee or lunch. Be up-front that you're looking for a mentor and ask whether the person has the time and willingness for the commitment that being a mentor entails. Listen carefully and take no for an answer -- the last thing you want is a mentor who's too busy to meet with you regularly!

At the first meeting, you'll each share a bit about your experiences and background to see whether your personalities and approaches to mentoring mesh well. If the answer is yes, begin to break down your goals for working with a business mentor into small, discrete steps.

As the mentee, you're actually driving the relationship and you need to ask for what you need. Agree with your business mentor about confidentiality, boundaries, expected time commitment and the length of time you expect to need to reach your goal. Of course, hopefully you will stay in touch for many years after that, but you don't want your initial work together to be open-ended.

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