Who You Want and How to Get Him/Her
If you decide that you want a mentor, there are a few things you should look for. What makes a good mentor varies according to your expectations. First, and perhaps most importantly, your prospective mentor should be approachable and willing to help. If they’re genuinely open and receptive on the job, chances are they will be the same when you approach them and ask for additional assistance in a mentoring capacity. If someone is constantly strapped for time, always looks stressed or snaps and snarls at the unfortunates who work under and around them, no matter how successful or technically brilliant, that person is probably not a good choice for a mentor. They may be missing some key ingredients such as patience, kindness and a desire or ability to share time, energy and expertise without personal gain. Instead of providing you with positive professional characteristics to emulate, that person could offer you a bunch of bad habits to pick up.
Second, you want a mentor who you can look up to. A mentor should be extremely successful. He or she could be recently retired but still active in IT or currently be working the IT career system to best advantage. They should have triumphed over multiple obstacles and created a fulfilling, respected and hopefully well-paid career. You want someone with fresh, innovative ideas to coalesce with the fast-paced, ever-changing nature of the technology industry. You want someone who will encourage you to not only ascend to where they are in their career, but perhaps with their guidance exceed their professional heights. Avoid any hint of that “young man jealousy.” Your prospective mentor should be helpful and honest. You want someone nice, but you don’t want a pushover or someone who will sugar coat things. They don’t call it the rat race for nothing. Sometimes you have to get a little dirty on your career trek, but that doesn’t mean flat-on-your-belly slithering through the muck, like a morally conscious-less slug.
How should you approach this person and ask for their help? Be polite. Make an appointment. Express your admiration without unnecessary and potentially off-putting or insincere-sounding flattery. Be specific. Have examples to let that person know you are serious and that you have studied them and their career in detail. Outline what it is you want them to do: Be available via e-mail or phone when you have a problem, serve as a role model, help you explore job opportunities, and plan and execute your career goals. You may want them to formally or informally assess your technical and interpersonal skills, encourage you, act as a resource and introduce you to new ideas, points of view and even to other IT professionals who have skills or knowledge that might be beneficial. Let the person know roughly how much time you will require of them, say four to six hours per month, which isn’t much, especially if most of the interactions take place via e-mail or phone. Ask what would be convenient for them. Be sure that you are cognizant and respectful of your prospective mentor’s time. If they say ‘no,’ it’s no biggie. Just find someone else to pitch the idea to.
You may end up with more than one mentor, each with their own area of expertise. You might even tailor your requests with those areas of expertise in mind. Once a mentor accepts your proposal, continue to be respectful and thankful. Never demand and certainly don’t take that person’s invaluable assistance for granted. If you do, you’re missing one of the key lessons to be learned from the mentoring relationship: Kindness, assistance and camaraderie have their place in the IT career journey, and that place can be at the top.