By LISA SINGHANIA NEW YORK — Bored and frustrated in her customer service job at a bank, Andrea Ferguson knew she needed a new career. So she started temping at a music label, where she learned about the publicity business before moving to a PR agency. But she needed help advancing her career, so she decided to find a mentor.
“There was this one particular woman who was the vice president for a well-established fashion label. I just read about her and knew I just needed to know her,” Ferguson, now 32, recalls. “I sent her an e-mail saying that, ‘I think you’re great, what you’ve done with this brand. I need a mentor. Will you help me?'”
The woman agreed to mentor her, and the ensuing relationship helped Ferguson meet other people and find freelance work, which ultimately helped her land her current job at prestigious New York PR firm. The experience underscores the value of mentoring — and how making the right connections and getting good advice can help jump-start your career or take it to the next level.
“There’s a ton of research that indicates people who have mentors make more money, get ahead, have greater satisfaction and have greater work-family balance,” says Ellen Ensher, co-author of “PowerMentoring” and an associate professor at Loyola Marymount University’s College of Business Administration.
Finding a mentor can be tricky, and Ferguson’s direct approach might not work for everyone. Luckily, there are several ways to identify and build mentoring relationships:
Consider opportunities where you work.
Some companies have formal mentoring programs that match mentors and mentees based on various criteria, ranging from similar career track and gender to ethnic diversity. There may be training, structured meetings and an allowance for regular lunches or similar get-togethers to encourage interaction.
“A mentor can help accelerate your career success, have a better sense of where you are in your career because you have someone to bounce your ideas off. It can also help build your skill sets and understanding of the business,” says Mike Hamilton, chief learning and development officer at accounting firm Ernst & Young, which has more than 25 mentoring programs
“I think it also helps us with retention because people feel better connected to the company,” he notes.
Look for mentors in unexpected places.
If your company doesn’t have a mentoring program, you are on your own. Identifying executives and senior colleagues whom you admire is one approach for finding a mentor, but don’t limit yourself.
“Figure out what your goals are, and there might be someone who is a peer at your same level who can help you. It doesn’t have to be someone who is older and wiser, it can be a peer,” Ensher, the Loyola Marymount professor says. “Or it can be someone outside out of your organization.”
Ensher also says it’s a good idea to have more than one mentor to help you navigate the different aspects of your life and career.
“A mentor is one of a network of people who give you career and emotional support. You should not just have one or two,” she says. “You may need a mommy mentor, a writing mentor or a boss mentor.”
Justin Bennett, whose mentors include senior executives at the life insurance company where he works, puts in more succinctly.
“What I pride myself on is trying to surround myself with people who are smarter and more successful than I am so I can maybe become a little smarter than I am,” the 24-year-old says.
It takes a lot of courage to ask someone to be a mentor. You can make it easier by reaching out to someone with whom you have some existing connection — the friend of a friend, a fellow college alumnus or someone you play with on the company basketball team, for example.
“Then you can say something like, I’m interested in talking to you because I admire your skills in such-and-such an area and in return I can offer you perspective,” Ensher says. “Think about not only what you want to get, but what you can offer them.”
But it’s also OK to cold-call — as Ferguson, the publicist, found out. She ultimately connected with other mentors this way.
“People were very receptive if you sent them a nice e-mail or letter and kind of knew who they were,” she recalls. “Also, once they knew I was hardworking and reliable, they were happy to help.”
Keep your expectations realistic.
A mentor can offer you advice or feedback on your career plans or work strategy — but don’t expect him or her to find you a job.
Also, your relationship may take time to develop, and be limited. Perhaps you’ll talk every week, or maybe just grab coffee once a month.
And don’t worry if you’re not best friends right away, or ever.
“You need a point of connection and something to bond about; a similarity of values, a hobby or something,” Ensher says. “But one of the things that we found is that some of the most successful mentoring relationships involved people who sought out someone very different but had complementary skills. For example, you’re not a great public speaker but you’re great at writing. You seek out someone who can fill that missing void.”
Nothing lasts forever.
At some point, you and your mentor may no longer be able to help each other or have time for the relationship. Always be appreciative — and be prepared to move on.
“Mentors are going to change over time,” Ensher adds. “Hopefully you can transition them gracefully. The idea is to have as much depth and breadth in your network as possible.”
asap columnist Lisa Singhania is an AP reporter. Do you work out at the office or attend a weight-loss group? E-mail: email@example.com to discuss.