As the great Steve Jobs once said, "you can’t connect the dots looking forward." Looking back at my career, it's obvious to me now that the mentoring I received, both informal and formal, paved the path for my career progression. Mentors provided essential guidance at just the right moments, advocated on my behalf, solidified relationships, and cleared landmines without my even being aware of them. My mentors have been colleagues, bosses, and outside connections, and all have played a vital role in my career; here are the areas I found most beneficial:
When you're in the midst of a project or dealing with multiple personalities and competing priorities it's easy to miss cues or be overwhelmed by the thorns that stick through. These might be in the form of difficult colleagues, time-consuming processes, or seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The path through them is not always clear and that could be due to a host of issue - you may be new to the company, not understand the implications of the work (the first time you review a contract with a team of experience lawyers, it can be be daunting), or you just don't see the alternative available to you.
Seasoned professionals have seen it all before and provide guidance on how to address these challenges. Perhaps the difficult colleagues are indeed a problem and require escalation, or you have to maneuver around them, but it might also be that you're not listening; that the nagging colleague might have a point and you have to address it. A mentor delivers this news in a manner that supports you and the desired outcome rather than trying to protect their interests.
Time-consuming processes and insurmountable obstacles benefit from collaboration - resistance from a particular department or individual can often be assuaged by pulling them into the value proposition, by making them part of the solution, and mentors can guide you on how to do that or if they have access, strengthen those relationships. Mentors internal to your organization have built a position of trust and can help clear the way by using it to help your progress.
In my career, mentors have opened my eyes to opposing viewpoints and have brokered passage through obstacles by leaning on, and sharing, their relationships. It's important to be direct and pragmatic with your mentors so that they understand the full picture. For example, while we may hold back on speaking about difficult work relationships it's important the mentor understands what is transpiring so that they can help.
Our early careers often involve specialization in one area of a larger field and we strive to be really great at what we do, but that can make us myopic and unable to see the larger picture. Everyone understands IT, finance, marketing, etc. is important, but not everyone can speak the language at a detailed level.
A mentor helps break you out of the myopic stance and opens your eye to the larger picture; often through rounds of questions and answers, you will grow to see how all the pieces connect together. Once you understand this, and can internally sell the business proposition, you will have a powerful tool to bring others along with you.
A mentor in your field of expertise can help with this, you don't need someone from a different field because seasoned professionals understand the work being done ultimately benefits the mission of the organization.
My early career was heavy on technical jargon, impressing others with megabits and processors, but through countless presentations and pitches, they have evolved to business-centric storytelling to bring everyone to the table. This is increasing true of cybersecurity professionals who can speak of hackers and vulnerabilities in acronyms many do not understand but once it's tied to business risk, attention is easier to grab and hold.
A Pragmatic Venting Board
Sometimes our frustrations are warranted, and we have to blow off steam. A mentor is able to understand where you're coming from and then provides a pragmatic take on how best to proceed. Whether it's dealing with work-related stress, imposter syndrome, or work-life balance, mentors provide a safe space to share concerns and seek advice.
I mentioned some early career pitfalls before and this is common one that many face. I've seen engineers become overly frustrated with lack of understanding of the "technical value" of a proposal not realizing that the business value was lost in the pitch. Learning to lead with that take time but engineers are more than capable of speaking to the end result once they have take the time to think it through and practice.
Mentors have heard my frustrations and have, at times, helped me see beyond them, and at others, reminded me that work isn't always rainbows and sunshine.
Mentors can be your cheerleaders, your sponsor, at various intersections of your career. If they're external to where you work, they can bridge networking connections; if they are internal, they can raise your name when opportunities arise for notable initiatives or projects.
There is work on your end of course. Don't be shy to volunteer or ask for projects that challenge you and then, most importantly, deliver quality work.
Mentors have pulled me into amazing projects, advocated for me at the highest levels, and have been my champion again and again.
The actions of the individuals who acted as mentors over the years paved the path for my career. I may not have noticed it then, but I do so now and am grateful.
A mentor is a valuable person in your professional career. You should seek one out or try to recognize them where they are. A boss can be a mentor, as can be a seasoned colleague. As mentioned in the opening, this relationship isn't always formal, but it doesn't hurt to ask the person to take on the role; in fact, I think it speaks highly of how much you value the individual.