The #1 Mistake HR Professionals Make in Getting a Mentor…

By Alan Collins

I’ve never, ever met a successful HR leader who hasn’t had at least TWO influential mentors in their lives.

HR professionals that have mentors have an edge over those that don’t.

They perform better on the job.

They get promoted more quickly.

They earn higher salaries.

And they report more job and career satisfaction.

However, the #1 biggest mistake I see HR folks make when selecting a mentor is that…

They try to make the mentoring relationship entirely

Let me explain…

Personally, in my entire HR career spanning 25 years, I never asked anyone to be my mentor. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful to have had countless mentors in my career. And I wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance of moving my career forward without their valuable career advice, counsel and friendship.

But asking someone to mentor me always felt awkward and uncomfortable. So early in my career a retiring senior HR executive gave me some advice about mentors that I’ve never forgotten. Here it is: “Get to know the decisions makers in the company, before you need their help. Set up time to talk to them about the business, about your interests, and about their needs.

But, don’t call this relationship anything.

Don’t label it.

It’s not mentoring.
It’s not networking.
It’s not ass-kissing.

It’s just two people getting to know each other. Don’t make it overly structured or formal.  Simply set these people up by asking: “Would you mind if I stop by from time to get your advice about the business, projects you’re working on and my career.” 

That’s it. Keep it simple. I’ve followed this advice almost to the letter. And, no one has ever told me “no.” And I never abused the access they gave me.

So, the question shouldn’t be whether you should have them. The question should be how many of them should you have. And my answer is: as many as possible!

Mentors are simply people who’ve been in your shoes before and can offer advice, support and the savvy gained from experience. So acquiring them should be one of your highest career development priorities.

Mentors can be found in any walk of life. You might have a peer or buddy who is especially on the ball. You might have an awesome boss. Your dad might have a friend who just seems to know everyone. A customer or vendor could take an interest in your career.

Years ago, I recently read where the GE CEO got mentored by a computer geek who was an expert on social media who was 25 years old — half of his age. So, don’t get hung up on age, gender or labels.

Your best bet for a mentor is a regular, reachable person you know who buys into your potential and is willing to spend time with you, sharing knowledge, encouraging you, helping you make connections and providing inspiration.

Here are a few other tips about making mentoring relationships work:
1.  Get brutally clear on your career direction.

Before you can be mentored, you must know what HR success for you looks like, so you can recognize it when you get there. For example: Do you want to ultimately head up the HR function for your company? Your division? Or your department? Do you see yourself on an HR generalist or on a specialist career path?

What personal sacrifices (relocation, family time, additional education, extra hours on evenings and weekends) are you willing to make for your career? Do you ultimately want to run your own HR consultancy or be in business for yourself providing HR services?

Be specific. Nail this down.

Realize that few busy people want to waste time or put in the effort to help you figure out what you want to be when you grow up.  That’s your job.  Most don’t mind sharing with you advice on how to get there, but determining where you want to go is YOUR responsibility.
2. YOU drive the mentoring relationship, not your mentor.

Come prepared when working with a mentor. Mentors are busy people who have careers and obligations of their own. Also, they can’t help you in every area of your life.

Every time you meet with your mentor, you should have an agenda that you’ve written out so that you can focus your discussion in those areas.

Also be prepared to give your mentor an update on how you’ve executed against suggestions they offered at your last meeting.
3.  Take good care of your mentor relationship.

Set up regular dates for coffee with your mentor. Keep him or her apprised of your progress, challenges, and questions.

Use them as sounding boards. Share your frustrations (constructively) and ask for advice on how to deal with them. But be sure every discussion you have isn’t about some huge issue or major crisis.

Your mentor is there to help nurture you in your job and career, not to help bail you out every time you have to put out a fire.
4.  Make it a two-way street by helping your mentor succeed.

Many productive mentoring relationships have benefits for both people. This is where some mentees mess up.

Instead of looking for what you can get, think about what you can give. Figure out what you can do for your mentor that will help them in their own career, personal lives, or with the legacy they may want to leave with the organization.

Volunteering to join task forces that they lead is one example. Or offering to take on assignments or projects they don’t have time to do is another.

You might also pass on articles that they might be interested in based on conversations you may have had. Sharing perspectives that they may not get from other places can also help.

Anything that you can do to proactively put their needs before your own makes for an excellent and long-term mentor-mentee relationship.
5.  Leverage your organization’s formal mentoring programs.

Lots of companies have a formal mentoring program where executive and managers are assigned to high potential employees.

This is similar to the faculty-student arrangement you may have had in college, which is an obligation on the part of both parties rather than an option.

Sometimes these work.

Sometimes they don’t.

In any event, if you have an opportunity to participate, seize it.
6.  When mentors drop off, think of them as “graduating” not as a loss.

As time passes, some of your advisors and mentors may fall off your radar or become less engaged. It’s perfectly normal. Don’t take it personally.

People’s business priorities and career interests change. So, when a mentor drops out of your life, just cherish the time you spent learning from each other as a great mutual education period. And, make sure you learned something from the experience that added value to your career.

You should get back in the game and reach out to someone new as a replacement. And, keep in mind that just because someone falls away for a while doesn’t means he or she might not come back to play a major role in your HR career at some point in the future.

And, here is one final suggestion…

When selecting mentors, avoid those who
belittle your HR ambitions.  The poor ones do that.
The great ones make you feel that, you too, can become great!



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