Mentors matter. This is a recent blog post I wrote for author and speaker Mary Foley’s terrific website, which is aimed at inspiring women. Click here to visit Mary’s site.
Over the years, I’ve had a few female bosses offer guidance. But they never helped me break through any sort of glass ceiling, get promoted, boost my skills or navigate a career change. Now in my 50s, I work diligently to form these kinds of relationships, and it’s happening. I can feel the impact both psychologically and concretely in the way my work life is progressing.
As I write in my new book, Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … And Pays the Bills, whether you’re currently hunting for a new job, just getting started in one, or planning a change into a new field, it’s a good idea to have a mentor or sponsor at your side. You need someone in your corner to calm you, focus you, and push you beyond your comfort zone.
We all need someone with experience and gravitas of whom we can ask questions without fear of looking stupid or putting our position in jeopardy.
Finding an unpaid advisor who has the time available to listen and counsel takes time and patience. A good mentor is not a career coach per se, though they may play that role at times. A good mentoring relationship grows organically over time. It takes nurturing, but a relationship often lasts for years, and a friendship grows that is priceless.
Almost universally, the workers I know who have made a successful transition to new work after 50 had at least one person they could turn to when the ground got shaky. It was inevitably someone who was experienced with the ins and outs of the new line of work and could lend a verbal hand.
These workers tapped into a great mentor for constructive advice, a “you can do it” pep talk. Sometimes it was a tough love kick in the pants or brutal honesty. In the best scenarios, the mentor opened up a broad network of contacts that gave back tenfold as resources, even as investors in a new venture, or leads to future job opportunities.
It makes sense. Most people like to help each other out when we can, provided we have the time and think we can really make a difference. There are tangible and intangible benefits to having a mentor.
Someone with a mentor is more confident and self-aware and often more of a risk taker, according to a recent Gallup survey based on its consulting practice.
By absorbing advice from people who have been successful in a field you want to jump into, you can get a sense of what the work is like on a day-to-day basis. You learn what has worked for them in the past and what stumbling blocks to avoid.
Like most things in life, finding a mentor is a process. The right chemistry takes some trial and error. And there’s no law that says you can only have one– and they can be both male and female. Remember, you aren’t looking for yes-men and -women, who support you no matter what. You want them to believe in your mission, but you need to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly. No lip-gloss.
Landing the right person to have in your corner may take some work on your part. But the resulting relationship can truly impact your life. A study published by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett found that both men and women who have a mentor behind them are more likely than those without one to ask their boss for a raise, or an assignment that pushes them out of their comfort zone.
LinkedIn surveyed nearly 1,000 female professionals in the United States and found that most women feel that it’s important to have a mentor. But most boomer women don’t actually have one.
About two-thirds of boomer women—between 45 and 66 years old—say they never had a mentor, according to LinkedIn’s study. LinkedIn asked the women who hadn’t had a mentor why that was the case. More than half of the women say they hadn’t had a mentor because they had “never encountered someone appropriate.”
Ask yourself what you want in a mentor. Is it an expert who can help with a specific goal—finding a job, planning a second career, asking for a raise, say, or suggesting ways to spiff up your image with the proper dress for success attire? Do you want someone at your workplace who can be an advocate for your project or promotion, or someone on the outside who can act as a more general sounding board and big-picture guide?
Finding A Mentor
Your employer may have a mentoring program. Check with the human resources department. Many big corporations offer sponsorship and mentoring programs.
Look outside the office. You can find mentors you have met through activities you’re involved in. Consider neighbors, friends, and relatives. One person I call for guidance is my big sister. This works for me. She’s smart, successful, and a good listener with clear advice and no hidden agenda.
Check out alumni groups. Your high school, college, or university’s alumni association may offer a mentoring program.
Tap into professional associations and groups. They often have mentoring programs to match members with experienced mentors. For example, local chapters of the National Association of Women Business Owners (nawbo.org) offer mentoring programs. Your town’s Rotary Club, U.S. Small Business Association (SBA), and the Chamber of Commerce near you are good resources.
Mine your social media contacts. An “Advanced People” Search on LinkedIn, for example, can lead you to a potential mentor. You might search for someone from your alma mater. You can focus the search on your zip code or town, so you can connect with someone nearby.
Consider a mentor younger than you. 50+ workers might want to tap someone who may be junior in age but can offer more experience and guidance when it comes to new fields and areas like technology, where you might not be quite as fluent.
Skip the formal request. The main reason most mentors and sponsors say they take the time to counsel and help is the intangible satisfaction they get in paying it forward. Start by simply asking for advice on one action or problem.
Make it fun. Find ways to meet regularly, even without an urgent agenda. Nurture the relationship.
Do something for them. Show your gratitude. Make the relationship reciprocal by serving as a source of information and support for your mentor in some way. It’s the proverbial two-way street.
Be a mentor. This will give you a better idea of how to work with a mentor yourself. Even if you are at the bottom of your hierarchy at work or in your field, you might find mentees through alumni associations or nonprofits where you volunteer.
Listen. As a mentor, resist the temptation to give instant advice. You don’t have to solve their problem that precise minute. As a mentee, don’t respond defensively. That’s easier said than done. Hit the pause button and give yourself time to absorb the message and consider if it works for you.
About Kerry Hannon
Kerry Hannon is a Washington, DC-based career, retirement and personal finance expert. She is a writer, editor, web content producer and columnist covering jobs, retirement, aging issues and personal finance for numerous national publications including Forbes, PBS, and AARP. Kerry’s newest book is Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … And Pays the Bills.