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Why You Need A Mentor

Amy Schiffman
March 23, 2021

“We’re here for a reason. I believe a bit of the reason is to throw little torches out to lead people through the dark.” — Whoopi Goldberg

Sue Rifas and I are texting about how soon we’ll be able to do lunch again in person. We’re getting impatient – after all, we’ve been “lunching” for almost twenty-five years - so the break we were forced to take this year was not a welcome one. Sue retired in 2015 after serving in leadership positions at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago for more than 40 years, most recently as Vice President of Board Operations. Previously, she served as Assistant Director of Budget & Planning and as Vice President of Planning & Allocations and Board Operations. 

Sue was, and still is, one of those people on whose good side you hope to stay. She does not suffer fools lightly, and she tells it like it is. This is part of what attracted me to her when I was paired with Sue in an official mentor/mentee capacity as part of the FEREP (Federation Executive Recruitment and Education) program in which I participated as part of my graduate school training. She was a tiny bit scary at the time – the only female on an all-male senior management team, an MBA, and a no-nonsense approach to the work. So, I knew to come prepared to our conversations and think before I talked. This turned out to be good training for the real world. All these years later, I continue to turn to Sue for advice when I am feeling challenged by a project, person or decision. I trust her instincts on almost any subject, and I know she won’t always tell me what I want to hear. A good mentor is someone who pushes us to be the best versions of ourselves, and I’m lucky that I found mine so early on in my career.

What is a mentor? 

A mentor typically provides career advice, but they can be either internal or external to your company or organization. This is someone who can serve as a trusted counselor, provide guidance on work projects, help navigate difficult personalities, or even help you get through life’s challenges. A mentor might be someone who is further along in their career and typically sees more talent and potential in you than you see in yourself. A true mentor volunteers their time and helps carve out professional development and/or growth opportunities as you navigate your career’s complexities and roadblocks. I have enjoyed the guidance of a female mentor (almost all of my supervisors were male), but mentors and mentees need not share the same gender orientation. 

Where do I find one?

I was lucky because my mentor was assigned, and we continued to connect long after my graduate studies ended. But if you are in the market for a mentor, think about people you admire in your field. Consider whether or not anyone senior to you has taken a particular interest in your work or in your growth. While some mentoring relationships occur naturally and develop gradually, others must be sought out. Mentoring networks exist on platforms like LinkedIn, but the alumni office from your university or graduate school might also offer these kinds of opportunities. Begin by considering your own personal and professional network and think about the blogs, webinars or articles you admire, whose social media you are following, and whose advice you respect.  Then, reach out and ask for that first meeting! Things tend to progress naturally from there.

If you’re not convinced you need a mentor, it’s likely you’ve never had (a good) one. A great mentor can: 

  • Coach you through challenging times in your current role
  • Guide you through critical thinking about your career path
  • Connect you to others in your field
  • Provide you with resources and information on current trends 
  • Offer feedback and constructive criticism
  • Push you outside of your comfort zone
  • Advocate on your behalf and open doors

When my mentor was asked about her advice to those seeking a career in the nonprofit sector, she encouraged junior level professionals to take the initiative. "You have to create your own opportunities and hang in there. You have to earn your credibility. Demonstrate your interest and abilities-show you want responsibility, that you are capable of having it." I think that’s good advice. Spoken like a true mentor.

Stick around for the second in a three-part series Evolve is offering on career development. Next week, Jamie Perry and I will talk about the do’s and don’ts (more on the don’ts) of interviewing. In two weeks, we’ll explore the path to the chief executive seat. We look forward to your comments and questions!