Have you ever had a career question and wanted unbiased guidance on the best way to achieve your goals? Have you ever had to deal with a situation and wished someone was there to help you work through the problem? If you’ve found yourself in these situations, you can go to your supervisory chain, but I also suggest actively seeking out a mentor.
What does a mentor look like?
My definition of a mentor is someone you engage in a long-term formal or informal professional advisory contract with, who has characteristics you wish to emulate. Mentors come in all shapes and sizes; they can be older, younger or even more junior in rank. I recommend looking for someone you admire, respect and is very successful in the type of career path you wish to follow. Mentors do not always need to be from your specific career field, but should have qualities you can learn from which will help you be successful. A mentor should be a superb listener, and above all else, must be someone you trust.
How do I find the right mentor for me?
A mentor is someone who helps you work through your challenges, not fix problems for you. Finding the right mentor starts with knowing yourself. Before you try to find the right person to help you work through your weaknesses, you need to have at least a rough idea of what your flaws are. Some of your weaknesses may be identified via external sources such as your Airman Comprehensive Assessment, from peers or from family members. Spending time reflecting on your challenges and taking a deeper internal analysis (introspection) can help you define characteristics you want to improve.
Once you identify your areas for improvement, start looking for someone who is strong in areas you are weak. If you get frazzled under pressure, look for someone who is calm in stressful situations. If you have problems writing or speaking, look for a great communicator. If you do not understand the path to success in your career field, look for someone who has achieved your desired career end state. The right mentor may be someone you have worked, or currently work with. Scott Air Force Base is a great place to search for a mentor. There are superb leaders working at or below the wing level, and we have the luxury of working right next to top level managers at our higher headquarter units.
While I have never tried this route, there are online methods to search for a mentor. You might consider looking on the web at the Air Force’s “MyVector” program, Facebook, LinkedIn or other commercially available sites.
How do I establish a relationship with a mentor?
Once you have decided on a potential mentor, you need to initiate the relationship. If you both know each other, it may be as easy as asking the person to meet for a small amount of time to discuss one of your minor challenges and the possibility of engaging in a mentor/protégé (mentee) contract.
If you do not know the person, you will have to initiate contact in a more formal approach. This may be a phone call or a written message. You could look for an opportunity to work with this person on a project, and then initiate a conversation. Do some online research for other recommended ways to initiate contact. Build or have your resume ready to share. Be ready to answer personal and professional questions as the first conversation with someone you do not know may resemble a job interview.
The mentor/protégé relationship is based on mutual gain so be prepared for rejection and do not take it personally. Just because you think you have found the right mentor does not mean this person wants or is ready to mentor you. If the member you contact agrees to meet with you, be prepared! Come to the meeting with a succinct list of your problem(s) and be ready to take notes. Be prepared to state why you want this person to be your mentor and what you expect from the relationship.
If the person agrees to be your mentor and helps determine the best way to solve a problem, execute the plan and be prepared to show you value his or her advice! This is the reciprocal part of the relationship. Take notes on how you worked to solve the problem and the results. If your problem involves a short-term solution, ask your mentor for a follow up meeting and share your results. If your problem involves a long term solution, schedule short follow up meetings and share your progress. Following up with your mentor shows respect, allows your mentor to learn from you and strengthens the relationship.
Does the mentor/protégé contract end when the problem is solved?
The mentor/protégé contract ends when one or both parties want to end it. Remember, this relationship is based on mutual respect and mutual growth. If you have solved one or two simple problems with your mentor, try solving more complex problems. Doing so presents a worthy challenge and bigger reward for both the mentor and protégé, but if both parties are not putting in the work, the relationship will dissolve.
On a personal level, I find having people willing to help me work through problems very reassuring and worth all the effort. I am never alone in my decisions, and am always one phone call away from getting superb advice from someone I completely trust.