Everything You Need To Know About Mentoring

Carmen O'Shea

Mentoring—both being mentored and mentoring others—has always been an important part of my professional life. Early in my career, I was encouraged to get a mentor. I took that advice—many times over—and have benefited greatly (in fact, two long-time mentors still send interesting jobs my way from time to time!).

In return, as I’ve advanced through my career, I’ve tried to make it a point to mentor others, sometimes up to 10 or 15 people concurrently. I recently had the honor of presenting my thoughts on mentoring to a group of women at SAP, and I wanted to share them more widely as I feel they are applicable at all stages of one’s career. Here are some of the questions I’ve received over the years, along with my honest answers.

  1. When should I get a mentor? Now! You can benefit at any time in your career, whether you’re starting your first job, switching companies, or going through a rough patch at your job. People assume you need an agenda to begin a mentoring relationship, or even just to reach out. But in reality, it can be based on a specific question or a desire to understand someone’s job or career decisions.
  1. How can I identify a mentor? Look for someone whose behavior and/or work style you admire, someone in a role you‘re interested in, or someone you wish to make yourself visible to. Make sure it’s someone you feel will be open to giving back. Do your research and learn a bit about them before you inquire. I’ve had mentors whom I’d previously worked for, mentors outside my current company in the same industry, mentors in the non-profit space I was interested in learning more about, peer mentors, C-level mentors, and reverse mentors (these are people more junior who bring a different generational perspective). The key is to just ask! Most people will be flattered. Remember to keep your audience in mind—for example, if it’s quarter close, wait until things settle down. Request 15 minutes of their time, tell them why you’d like to meet with them, and in what capacity. Then, if you like what you hear, ask if they’ll be your ongoing mentor, or simply ask if you can speak with them again. Also ask if there’s anyone else they recommend you connect with.
  1. How should I use a mentor? There are many forms of mentoring—do what helps you most. Maybe it’s a quick, one-time info session to learn about someone’s job or career trajectory. Perhaps you leverage your mentor for periodic discussions at critical job junctures, or for ongoing guidance about career development. Maybe you call them for support in handling a crisis, or to help you understand the company culture better. Maybe you seek advice about work-life integration challenges. Or perhaps you want the mentor to consider you or refer you for a future job or opportunity. Remember to fit the mentor and mentoring relationship to your needs. This is also why having multiple mentors is so important.
  1. How can I prepare to work with my mentor? Prepare for mentor meetings like you would any other. Value your mentor’s time. Have a specific set of questions, issues, or career-related points to discuss. Bring documentation if it helps. I sometimes schedule calls—this works with some mentors but feels forced with others. Ask your mentor what mode of communication works best for them (e.g., I’m easiest to reach via email or text). Thank them every time you speak with them. A follow-up email is a nice touch. Send information their way, too—you can also be helpful to your mentors.
  1. What should I expect from my mentor? You can expect them to help you outline the rules of engagement. Some mentors like to schedule formal check-ins, while others may prefer to have you reach out only when needed. I personally like to keep things fluid and informal, based on the needs of each of my mentees. I also offer to be there for mentees when they need it in a crisis, even if that means connecting with them outside normal working hours. Once committed, mentors should be prepared to focus their time and energy and to follow through on promises. I’ve reviewed emails, business plans, strategy ideas, and org challenges with and for my mentees, and I’ve also done research on their behalf occasionally. Mentors should also be willing to open additional doors—I often refer my mentees to other people inside or outside the organization I think will help them. Mentors should be respectful, non-judgmental, and good listeners, but they won’t always have the answers. Sometimes a mentor will ask more questions for you to get to the answer on your own. Mentors should keep their conversations confidential. If you don’t see this kind of reciprocity and support from your mentor, you may need a new one!
  1. What shouldn’t I expect from my mentor? A mentor should not necessarily fix problems for you, nor should they play the role of HR. They should never point you toward doing anything dishonest or that shows a lack of integrity. And they should not disparage your issues or ideas—if they do, get a new mentor!

What do you think—are these tips helpful? Do you have other questions you’d like answered? Let me know!

Coming up in Part 2: How can I maintain a mentor relationship? How can I turn my mentor into a sponsor? Can I be a mentor at any time? and more advice.


Carmen O'Shea

About Carmen O'Shea

Carmen O'Shea is the Senior Vice President of HR Change & Engagement at SAP. She leads a global team supporting major transformation initiatives across the company, focused on change management, employee engagement, and creative marketing and interaction. You can follow Carmen on Twitter.