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Never too late for mentoring

How a mentor can help you reach your goals at any stage of your career

Jen Weigel

January 17, 2012

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Seeking the advice of an expert in your chosen field seems logical when you're starting out in the workforce. But what about when you're professionally established? Does it make sense to reach out to a mentor when you've already achieved success?

"I think mentors are very important at every stage of a career," said Charles Wardell, president and CEO of executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. "It's increasingly important the more senior you get."

Wardell said a mentor will see you in ways your co-workers may not, and they're more likely to be completely honest.

"The more successful you become, the more you need someone to sit you down and say, 'Hey, you have a blind spot in this. Here's what you need to do,'" he said. "What mentors do is they let you see yourself as others see you, and report that back to you so there's a clear idea of how you're perceived."

For Lara Galloway, a mentor was just what she needed when she started her own business coaching working moms (http://www.mombizcoach.com) and running business retreats.

"There's a big difference between a consultant, who is a paid expert who tells you how to do the right thing the best way, and a mentor, who is someone you seek out when you want something and you need guidance," she said. "Your mentor is someone who holds you accountable to what you say you want."

Galloway, who was listed by Forbes.com in 2009 as one of the 30 women entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter, said looking to others for career advice was a necessary step for her continued success.

"When I was 20 I had the answers to everything, so hiring a mentor wasn't on my radar," she said. "As we get older we are much better at asking for help."

Here are Wardell and Galloway's tips to enlisting a professional mentor later in life.

Don't assume your mentor needs to have more experience than you.

"Many times the best advice you could get is (from) someone at a different level, who will see you differently," Wardell said. "As long as this person cares about you and has your best interests in mind, even if they are at a junior level, it can be very beneficial."

Find someone you respect.

"You want to admire their drive and integrity, and not just their accomplishments," Galloway said. "And be sure to look for someone who will get a charge out of giving back. We learn best when we teach someone."

"They are not meant to pat you on the back and tell you how great you are," Wardell said. "This doesn't help you be a better business partner."

Be up front about your expectations.

"I would let (your mentor) know what you're asking of them," Galloway said. "Do you just want to pick their brain, or do you want the opportunity to bring your questions and share with them some of your goals? Are you connecting over coffee or lunch once a month or do you just pick up the phone once in a while?"

"A lot of people you might want to ask will be busy," Wardell said. "But be flexible and throw out several options so you can carve out time. I call it 'cigar and brandy' time. Have a glass of wine with them and talk about your goals. Ask them to dinner and pick their brain."

Offer compensation.

"This is different with every situation," Galloway said. "I've had unpaid mentors where money was never an option. But then I've hired mentors for specific reasons or specific seasons when I want to kick it up a notch and learn specific skills. I think anything that's related to business I would be willing to pay. They can always turn it down, and those who want to mentor for the sake of giving back, will."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel