This article is based on a presentation that was delivered at the FPA Annual Conference 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee.

There’s no question that having a mentor can provide tremendous benefits for your career. Just look at the countless number of industry titans who have mentors: Warren Buffett, Jamie Dimon and Tim Cook, to name a few. Even Darth Vader and Batman had mentors.

Your opinion on the “dark side” or vigilante heroes aside, mentorships can most certainly help propel your career forward, if you know how to use them. As you begin your career, you may wonder what mentorships are, how they work and where you should look to find a mentor. Mentorships shouldn’t be shrouded in mystery, but there isn’t one accepted guidebook for them either. There are, however, several keys to remember to begin a successful mentorship.

What’s the Secret?

A mentorship is a structured partnership between two people: The mentor guides the mentee to find solutions to challenges and to promote self-awareness through reflection, maturity and growth. The mentoring relationship can last for months, years, or even a lifetime. Simply applying an ‘open door’ policy in an office isn’t enough, as the mentee can often feel that they are bothering their mentor when stopping in with questions, and may be discouraged from doing so more in the future. In order to build a platform for success, time needs to be scheduled and set aside for each meeting.

Secondly, mentorships are a continuous commitment that doesn’t stop when each meeting ends. In fact, both parties may leave with homework to complete before they meet again. For example, in a recent meeting with my mentor, we discussed management advice and he recommended I read a few sections of the book From Good to Great by Jim Collins. I immediately got my hands on the book and read the first few chapters before our next meeting. Not only did I learn a lot from it, but my next mentor meeting was that much better because we were able to have a productive conversation about what I had learned and how I could apply it to my day-to-day responsibilities. Following through on topics you discuss proves to your mentor that you’re taking the relationship seriously and strengthens your mentorship.

The big secret to a successful mentorship is that you, the mentee, are responsible for defining the agenda for each meeting. There is no syllabus for a mentorship. This is both a really scary realization and an awesome one. Your mentor has opened themselves up to answering any questions you might pose and to sharing their experiences with you, but you need to lead the meetings. I’ve heard countless professionals express their frustration when individuals ask to meet for coffee and sit down and say, “So tell me everything I need to know.” It doesn’t work like that. You need to spend some time thinking about what you want to talk about prior to each meeting and be specific with your questions. If nothing comes to mind, then reschedule the meeting, with at least 24 hours’ notice. You don’t want to waste your time, and you definitely don’t want to waste your mentor’s time.

It’s a Match!

So, how do you select a mentor? Depending on where you are in your career, your method and choice may be different. Put some thought into what you want to get out of the mentorship upfront. Do you want career advice? Technical knowledge? A closer relationship with a superior? Thinking through this will help you in the process of selecting a mentor.

Keep in mind that a mentor should not be your manager or primary evaluator. This is crucial! There needs to be an inherent level of trust and confidentiality to your relationship and you must feel completely comfortable sharing everything with them without being worried that what you say might have an adverse consequence on your job. Your mentor can be a senior person or partner at your firm as long as they are not directly involved in your evaluation process.

Some firms may not be large enough or have a structure for a formal mentorship program, but there are plenty of other resources available to help you find a mentor. FPA has a great program called Mentor Match where people who are interested in finding a mentor can search for one, and others looking to give back can also list themselves as a potential mentor.

You could also meet a potential mentor at a networking event, however, you don’t need to “make it official” immediately. A softer, more natural approach is to engage them in conversation and ask for their business card and follow up at a later date to get to know them better. That way you can take the time you need to make sure they are a good fit for you (Plus, you don’t want to sound too desperate).

Another potential resource is a professor from either your college or CFP® certification/education program. Many of the professors in these programs are practitioners themselves, and probably have a great deal of useful knowledge to share with you from both an academic and practical perspective.

When you find your mentor and begin the relationship, be open to sharing your crazy ideas, thoughts, and ambitions. Your mentor could provide the reassurance you’ve been looking for that your company or product idea is worth pursuing. For instance, who would have thought that in 2017 most of us would carry tiny computers in our pocket? On the other hand, your mentor might also quickly let you know if you’re totally out in left field and encourage you to keep thinking.

Get to it!

Like Anakin Skywalker, you may have more than one mentor, either at the same time or as your career goals and aspirations change. While I hope you avoid the “dark side,” this example proves that no one is above the benefits a successful mentorship can provide. Whether you’re fresh out of college or already a decade or two in, a mentorship is a great way to enrich both your career and your mentor’s, so start today.

Brian C. Kelleher, CFP® is a Wealth Planner at Ballentine Partners in Waltham, Massachusetts, where he works directly with wealthy families and entrepreneurs in concert with their outside advisors to help them make smart decisions about their wealth, giving them the freedom to focus on the lives they want to lead.

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