Up until now, my career advice has focused on how to advance one’s own prospects. To reach your current position, it’s likely that you networked (in person or through LinkedIn) and met individuals who gave you invaluable guidance. Today I’d like to address the other side of that: how do you give meaningful advice to younger friends and acquaintances asking for your help? How can you be an effective mentor?
“Send the Elevator Back Down”
I’ll never forget the speech that actor Kevin Spacey delivered at the University of Virginia last October. His House of Cards quotes were pithy and well-received (which had nothing to do with his Frank Underwood voice). The best line he delivered was not from House of Cards, but from his mentor, the late Jack Lemmon. Reaching our career milestones is all very well and good, but don’t forget to “send the elevator back down” and give someone else a boost.
It’s vital to listen carefully to your mentees when they approach you. Schedule a phone call or chat session to discuss their interests and questions thoroughly. Ask them to briefly share their concerns or fears about graduate school or the job they are aiming toward. That last point is very important because you can explain the obstacles you wrestled with. It can be reassuring to your mentees that others underwent similar trials.
Don’t be afraid to question a mentee and ask why he or she wants that particular program or job. Look over their professional portfolios carefully to understand their strengths and weaknesses. If there’s a noticeable gap in a resume, dig deeper and see if a hobby or volunteer work was inadvertently left out. Your guidance is useful not only for a mentee’s immediate questions, but also as preparation for their graduate school or job interviews.
Open Your Address Book
I’m quite relieved that address books are stored electronically in the 21st century. I can’t imagine flipping through a Rolodex to search my nearly 400 professional connections. LinkedIn is one of the best networking tools because it comes with excellent search and filtering options. You can drill down by school, location, company, and other terms.
I recommend that you pick no more than five connections for your referrals. Be sure that these picks are individuals who are indeed compatible with the career interests of your mentee. You don’t want everyone to wonder why these introductions are being made. To protect the privacy of your mentee and your LinkedIn connection, ask each one separately if they grant their consent to establish the introduction. After you receive their consent, send an e-mail to your mentee and list your referral in the cc line. Here is an example of an introduction:
Hello, (Mentee’s Name),
I’d like to introduce you to my friend/classmate/former colleague, (Insert name). We were in the same group at (Insert school or company name). (Insert name) attended/worked at (Insert school or company) and is happy to answer questions that you have. Please contact him/her at this address. Thank you again, (Insert name), for your help!
My template can be customized easily to add fun facts or include someone’s interesting accomplishment. Don’t underestimate the effect of a brief introduction that both parties will see as warm and positive. It allows the momentum to continue into a fruitful discussion.
Notice that I instructed the mentee to contact my connection. I see it as turning over control of the exchange back to the mentee, who can continue with taking the initiative in their educational and career aspirations.
Why Should I be a Mentor?
Mentoring is not a quick, one-time activity. These consultations take a lot of patience, critical thinking, and time on your part. However, you come away with remarkable insight about how far you’ve come and the vast store of knowledge that you can offer to others. Your mentees, in turn, will be grateful for your aid. They’re likely to surprise you as well with what they know about the latest apps or other things that happened after you graduated. So press that button and “send the elevator back down.” There’s plenty of room up here.
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