How to create a network of mentors to supercharge your professional development

By Jennifer Rogers (LinkedIn), governor at large, NTEA Generation Next

This article was originally published in the May 2022 issue of Generation Next Edition.

When I was younger, I was an athlete. I tried out for every sport I could find. I enjoyed the physical and mental competition, but most of all I enjoyed learning how to improve my abilities. I was part of a team that was working toward the same goal, and we had coaches to help us get there. They showed us how to think on our feet, use the skills we already had, and teach us to improve our weaknesses. They taught us not to lose sight of our objectives, even when things were difficult. They showed us how to improve our flaws and if we couldn’t, how to work around them. I believe that having a coach should not be limited to sports. In the professional world, we call them “mentors,” and they can be invaluable to your development in the workplace.

Once I was able to connect with a mentor, I saw how it expanded on my abilities to go after opportunities I didn’t even know existed, tap into resources I didn’t know were there, and create a feedback loop that brought my own strengths and weakness to the forefront. All of which have been critical in my professional journey and progression.

I recently attended Work Truck Week® in Indianapolis and had the pleasure of joining the Generation Next Networking Reception. I had the opportunity to meet with several newcomers to our industry, but one person asked a question that really stood out to me. She asked, “Do you have any advice for the best way to immerse myself into the commercial truck business?”

It made me think about my own career and how I was able to get a head start in a new professional landscape. The first thing that came to my mind:  Create a network of mentors who can assist you in accelerating your learning curve so that you can become incredibly productive in the shortest amount of time.

There was a point in my career when my advancement had stalled. What helped me really break through the low points was the opportunity to learn from and connect with those who had already gone through a similar journey. I didn’t have a single mentor or a formalized regular cadence with them, but I did have a small network from which to draw different perspectives. Mentors have “been there, done that” and have a bird’s-eye view of your situation. They can help you to avoid pitfalls they have experienced and share tactics that helped them succeed.

So, what makes someone a good mentor?

Here are three things I look for when selecting a mentor:

1. Look for someone who teaches you how to think, not what to think.

A mentor of mine told me that you want to seek advice from those who have already walked a similar path and can offer what they felt during their struggles – not those who advise you on how you should overcome them. Look for mentors who will nudge you and guide you to think for yourself, so you can solve problems in your own way. They can be there to make sure you do not completely derail, but you are still the driving force moving your solutions forward. They should encourage and challenge you to create a system of problem-solving by gathering information from others who have experienced something similar, thinking through the input, and creating your own solutions.

2. Pick someone with whom you share common ground and trust.

When you’re choosing a mentor, you should also look for someone who is driven, cares about the development of others, and is willing to commit to the teaching process. It is most effective when the mentor and mentee have similar backgrounds, skill sets, experiences, roles, or are facing similar challenges. Having common ground to build your mentor/mentee relationship allows things to progress quickly, builds trust, and makes it easy for you to see and utilize them as a sounding board.

3. Look for someone who is honest and willing to give the hard advice.

Because I appreciate candor, I sought mentors who didn't shy away from pointing out my flaws. Being able to put your ego aside and accept constructive criticism about your performance is key to success. Sure, there may be some people who you wish would keep their opinions to themselves, but an honest look at their suggestions – and accepting they may be right – will help move your professional development leaps and bounds further than those who choose to hide from their weaknesses. Bottom line: Keep an open mind and leave your ego out of it.

Questions to ask

Before you start the process of finding a mentor, first seek clarity about your future goals. As a mentee, you can find a good mentor only if you are clear about what you want to achieve. Accountability during this process will always belong to the mentee; you must acknowledge that. But a great mentor can help you structure the framework for the path forward, especially if you are plagued by indecision or lack of purpose.

When choosing a mentor, you should look across multiple disciplines and functions, and determine whether you want to find a mentor within or outside of your company.

  • Who are your role models?
  • Whose position would you like to step into in the next one, five, or ten years?
  • Is there someone in your current organization you admire for a different set of skills than you possess?

While it is important to match similar skill sets, experience, and roles, looking for a wide array of industry perspectives may be beneficial as well. An engineer may solve a problem differently than a marketing manager, for instance. So, being able to draw from a diverse set of perspectives will help you to expand your thought process and open you to finding solutions from unlikely sources.

I find the most beneficial mentor relationships happen organically. You notice a colleague has a teaching spirit, a boss who takes the time to explain their logic regarding decisions made, or someone who is willing to take you “under their wing”; these are all signs they are open to mentoring. Many times, we already have people in our professional lives who provide advice in several ways. All it takes is diving into that connection and turning it into a deeper, professional relationship. This can be a learning experience for both of you.

In my case, having a mentor’s guidance and advice enabled me to pursue career opportunities that I would not otherwise have seen or even known existed. My self-esteem began to soar, and my objectives became clear. This meant my company was able to best utilize my talent and translate it into my increased willingness to participate—meaning I wanted to work there longer, and I engaged more. I promise if you choose to walk this path, you will not regret it.

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