Finding Your Career Guru

May 14, 2008

Coach, advocate, champion. They are best-known as mentoring.  Whatever name you put to it, a mentor can be the most important asset in your arsenal for career advancement.  So, what is mentoring?   

The US Department of Labor’s Dictionary of Occupational Titles “asserts  that mentoring is the most complex type of human interaction, being more complex than teaching, counseling, supervising or coaching.”  

Reading this can scare anyone and about now you are thinking of the lateral move to putting the whole idea aside.  Before you put this one aside, let’s let the numbers convince you.  Fran Sepler, president of Sepler & Associates Inc., an organizational development firm in Minnesota, noted that “of the 1,200 top managers in Fortune 500 firms, two-thirds say they utilized mentoring relationships at some point in their careers.“  

Sepler went on to say that “there is a direct correlation between soaking up knowledge from a mentor and reaching a higher level of compensation and more promotions.”   If your career is stagnant and needs a little assist, finding a mentor may be the way to go.

Your company may have a mentoring program, so check with your Human Resource Department.  If not, here are some tips to help you get started.   

Before you commit to a long-term relationship, let’s define traits you should look for when selecting a mentor.  The Dreyfus Model for Becoming an Expert in a Dedicated, Focused Field” describes five levels of characteristics of a mentoring from expert to novice.   For our purpose, let’s look at the top three tiers:

Expert         Has at least 10 years focusing on a field.  Experience is broad and deep.  Aware of important variables in any new situation.  Able to use different paradigms and heuristics to solve problems quickly and creatively.  Reflective practitioner who self-assess what works and doesn’t.   Engages in “forward” reasoning to solve a problem.  Typically, this person developed the rules that serve a Guiding Principles to prevent problems and enhance success.    

 Proficient  Has at least 5 years in field, with some varied experiences.  Still “rule-bound” to other people’s rules when solving problems.  Becoming a reflective practitioner. 

Competent Has repeated experience doing the same thing.

When on the hunt for your next “career guru,” you may want to target a person that emulates the top tier.  Picking the friendly guy that hangs out at the water cooler just won’t cut the mustard.  You need to look for someone who is proactive in both criticism and support, and will be more challenging in helping you reach your goals.

Some mentoring relationships occur naturally with a person you “click” with and these can be the best.  A priority is to find a mentor who has the time, personality and talent to educate.  Look around your social or professional circles.  You may be drawn to someone similar in age, gender, race and experience. 

But these may not be the best pick.  You may have to look outside your comfort zone.  The ideal age difference is around 15 years with greater experience and is an “Expert” in the areas you want to pursue.   You may not be able to find every trait you want in one person.  Consider having more than one mentor, especially if you have varied interests and/or are highly specialized. 

Once you have that person(s) on board with you, both parties need to outline expectations.  Don’t be afraid to utilize this relationship to its fullest potential.  Use the mentor for long-term development that will have sustainability for your careers.  Mentors have a life-cycle so don’t cling too tightly.  As you grow and develop so should your network and one day you may find yourself in the “Career Guru” hot seat.   Anyone out there have a mentor or thinking of pursuing this avenue?  I would love to hear your experiences.

This article was written by Liane H. Gould, Manager of Career Services of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development.


Cheerleaders and Mentors

January 7, 2008

Going through a career transition can be one of the most stressful endeavors that we face in life. Having people to support you through this challenging transition makes a huge difference in how you come through the process.

On the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, losing a job and retiring from a job rank eighth and tenth, respectively. The only events that rank higher on the scale are losing a spouse or close family member, going to prison, or divorce/separation. No wonder so many country western songs have been written about these topics. My personal favorites would have to be those by Johnny Paycheck.

Losing a job, by choice or not, can lead to the same stages of grief that people go through after losing a loved one:

  • Denial: This can’t be happening.
  • Anger: Why me? This isn’t fair!
  • Bargaining: What can I do to stay?
  • Depression: It’s not worth trying. Why bother?
  • Acceptance: It’s going to be OK.

While these stages can not be completely avoided, having a voice of reason and support can make them easier, and in most cases can make the transition feel more manageable.

For many of us, support in our early years comes from our parents and our siblings. My parents have never understood science much less chemistry, yet they have always been supportive of my chosen path. They were and are the greatest cheerleaders that I have ever had. However, as life progresses, the influence of one’s parents generally decreases.

My mother has passed, and my father’s life and way of living is increasingly different from mine. Currently my friends and colleagues provide me with the mainstay of my support—listening to woes and cheering me on. For most, our cheerleaders in mid to late life will be our friends, spouses and life partners. Whatever the case, it is important to stay open to their support and avoid the temptation to withdraw from outside counsel.

Mentors, both formal and informal, can also help to ease our transitions. Formally, they can offer advice, serve as a voice of reason and stability, offer advice based on their experiences and knowledge. My formal mentor network includes my current and former supervisors, as well as my graduate and postdoctoral research advisors. In each career transition, I have gone to them for guidance. However, it is my informal mentors that have facilitated my transitions the most. Observing their choices and observing their career paths has made my journey more enjoyable.

I would wager that in most cases my informal mentors never knew that they were offering assistance and helping to shape my career path. Some of the best career advice I have gained has come from people that I haven’t really liked, but they have nonetheless had a major impact in my decisions to seek or keep a job.

As you go through a career transition, take a moment to inventory your cheerleaders and mentors, past and present. Make a note of their contributions, and look for the advice that resonates with your current situation. If you need a further voice of clarity, consider talking to a career consultant or adviser. ACS members can take advantage of free career consulting through the Society’s online programs. Others may find advice through university/college career services, state offices, community groups and/or churches.

On average, finding a new job takes six months to a year. Be prepared for the challenge by reaching out to the people that can help. I don’t know of anyone who wouldn’t benefit from a little cheering sometime.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D, assistant director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development.