In professional development circles, mentoring and mentorships are standard fare these days. But in IT, how many people are actually invested in a formal mentoring relationship? To be successful, you need a mentor, we’re told; to have successful employees, you need to mentor them. But what exactly does that mean?

Typically, you look to pair up with someone who’s already done what you want to do, who can advise you of the pitfalls on the way—the CIO from a company that’s already implemented the technology you’re thinking about, for example. “Of all the resources professionals have at their disposal, a mentor is arguably one of the most helpful,” writes Nicole Fallon in Business News Daily. “Articles, books, and trial and error can be great teachers when you’re navigating your career, but nothing can replace advice from someone who has been there before you.”

If your company doesn’t offer a formal mentoring program, here’s a guideline for what is involved in getting a mentor on your own:

  • Look for someone you can learn from. But don’t look for someone just like you. For example, your most useful mentor might not be someone from IT, but someone who can help you with marketing your department. Jo Miller, CEO of Women’s Leadership Coaching, Inc., recommends meeting people outside your company and personal network at conferences and seminars by talking to the speakers. Also try colleges, universities, and incubators in your area, recommends Gwen Moran in Entrepreneur, as well as Quora. There are also websites devoted to connecting and providing resources for mentors.
  • Don’t expect mentors to be nice. That’s not to say that your mentor needs to be a tormentor. There’s a line between constructive criticism and abuse, to be sure. But sometimes you need to be prepared to handle the truth. “Go out and find the most qualified or talented mentor, coach, or manager you can, and subject yourself to everything they can throw at you,” writes Jodi Glickman inGet Ahead With a Mentor Who Scares You.” This is particularly true early in your career, she adds. “The best mentors are those who ask a lot of tough questions and challenge you to exceed your goals,” agrees David Cohen in Entrepreneur.
  • Don’t limit yourself to a single mentor. Depending on where you are in your career and what you’re doing, you may find that different people are useful mentors for different reasons and purposes. The guy who’s great for advising you on technical issues may be terrible when you’re trying to learn about motivating your staff. So pick several mentors—what LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman calls a “constellation”—for the different facets and nuances of your career. And don’t assume that you “graduate” from being a mentee to a mentor, adds Jacquelyn Smith in Forbes. “We should all be learning from others (playing the mentee role) and teaching others (being the mentor) throughout our careers.” Former Intel CEO Andy Grove is even more direct, saying that the people he mentored taught him as much as he taught them.

What should be involved in a mentor program?

  • Schedule regular meetings. Schedule a session at least once a month, experts recommend. (Some meeting may have to be via email exchanges, but strive to have in-person meetings every quarter or so.) Sessions should include homework: The mentee should come to the meeting with a list of questions they’re currently grappling with. After the mentor offers advice, mentees should take notes on how they attempted to use the advice and what sort of responses they got. “If the topic of the meeting is client communication, work to incorporate that advice throughout the working week,” writes Rebecca Mahoney in TheNextWeb. “When you have your next meeting, bring copies of your emails and discuss the improvements you’ve seen or need with your mentor.”
  • Both parties must be willing to listen. “Listening is the key component of a mentor-mentee relationship,” writes Taylor Davidson in TheNextWeb. And that listening goes both ways, he adds. “It’s not just mentors that need to listen: mentees need to listen to mentors to make sure their advice is relevant and applicable for what they’re building.”
  • Make sure the mentorship is valued. If you want to demonstrate to your employees that mentoring is important, be sure to accommodate it in their schedules. Estimate how many hours per week should be dedicated to working with the mentee, and reassign the mentor’s other workload if needed, writes Nellie Akalp in Mashable. This way, your employees will truly feel like the program is a priority, and won’t try to hide each time the mentee needs help, she continues. Also consider including mentor relationships in staffers’ performance reviews.

The final thing to remember about mentor relationships? Pay it forward, writes Matt Mayberry in Entrepreneur. “Mentoring is a cycle. Keep this cycle going and return the favor of all the wisdom you have received from your mentor by becoming a mentor yourself. The more you give, the more that will be returned to you.”

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