Cultivating Mentor/Protege Relations To Insure Your Career Survival & Success

By Tracey de Morsella (formerly Tracey Minor)

In these tough times, it is important to find someone to support you throughout the course of your career. The best way to do so, is to assemble a team of advisors who can counsel you individually. Don’t just limit advisors to fellow employees so that you can gain a broad view of your industry and or field.

Mentors can serve as teachers, coaches and advocates. They can provide you with inside information relative to company norms, share experiences and tell you what to watch out for. They can also defend you, recommend you, provide guidance about appropriate and useful organizational behavior, speak up for you and empower you.

Your network can be extended and your political skills developed with the guidance of a mentor. They can give you insight into the organization’s culture including unspoken rules, politics, and nuances, while providing you with perspectives and solutions to errors that may have been caused by your inexperience, anxiety or naiveté'. Mentors can also expose you to new career opportunities. The following are a list of tips for developing relationships with mentors:

One of the best ways to find mentors is to join professional organizations - both ethnic and mainstream ones. Participation in professional-oriented groups may provide opportunities that will compliment or substitute for individual mentors.

It is wise to having a variety of mentors. You should avoid being overly identified with one person, so that if for some reason their career should take a downward turn, your career won’t be negatively affected. You will also gain a variety and degree of objectivity in opinions.

Studies have shown that individuals who differ demographically from their supervisors sometimes experience less mentoring by those supervisors. Because of these differences, people of color are rarely sought out as protégés by their white superiors for these types of relationships.

Some white male executives are not likely to reach out to be the mentor of a person of color because of perceived differences. According to managers interviewed in the GOLD on Diversity Leadership Study, white men are not usually eager to support someone with a different perspective or different values. Many find it difficult to even communicate with those with such differences because they can’t understand them.

It is important for people of color to cultivate mentor relationships so they can have someone to discuss their fears, mistakes and rages that they may feel over being treated differently than others. They can help you cope with the uncertainty you may feel about your role in the organization and the expectations others have about you.

People of color seeking a leadership path, in particular, may need the guidance, encouragement and advocacy that more seasoned managers can provide to overcome such hurdles as isolation, lack of credibility, and naiveté about institutional politics.

Having a mentor when you get a new job or are new promoted, is important because you may need someone to assist you in separating the pressures that you may feel as a result of taking on a new job from pressures tied to racial issues.

Having a mentor assigned to you when you first join an organization, can help you get over the initial orientation period quickly and learn about its informal systems and norms.

Sometimes those participating in a formal mentoring program may obtain a mentor who lacks initiative. Unfortunately, others may feel reluctant to step in and fill their shoes for fear that that may be stepping on someone’s toes. This is where external mentors come in handy.

Keep in mind that potential mentors that you may seek out, who share your ethnic background are probably in very high demand because there are so few of them. While they may feel a special obligation and be open to the idea of being a mentor, they may also feel overwhelmed by the added responsibility when added to their already heavy list of responsibilities. They can also run into the problem of being perceived as segregating themselves from the rest of the organization.

Select people who possess wisdom, expertise in your specialty area, and a keen understanding of your corporate culture. Their age is unimportant. Seek to develop relationships with those who are competent, respected, knowledgeable, flexible and innovative.

Don’t rush these relationships. It's best if they develop naturally over time.

It is virtually impossible to advance within an organization without someone supporting you who is above you in the hierarchy of the company. This does not often occur naturally for people of color, because upper-level white managers are frequently unable to relate to or identify with and recognize potential in people of color. So it is up to you to remain highly visible within your organization so your value as an asset to your firm will be realized.

Many times, those in positions to help us advance in our careers are not people of color. That is why it is imperative for people of color seeking career success to be open to having mentors who do not have the same ethnic background. So it is important to learn how to develop relationships with potential white mentors.

It is key that you don’t let anger or hostility you may feel, as a result of racism and the natural inclination to feel emotionally attached to your mentor, get in the way of the mentor/protege relationship.

It is advantageous if at least one mentor is an upper-level, well-respected manager or power broker in your organization. They can speak to others about outstanding work you may be responsible for. Also, they can help to increase your visibility within the firm.

Mentors can come through for you during hard times. If you are in danger of being laid off, they may be able to step in and either save your job, or have you reassigned. Or if you find yourself unemployed, they may be able to tap into their network and help you discover hidden employment opportunities.

Remember, not everyone whom you desire as a mentor may have the time or inclination to offer their support. Pushing the issue can lead you into a situation where they may refer to you as someone that they have negative perceptions about, and you may totally alienate them as a contact.

The fast paced nature of today’s businesses is not often conducive to the development of mentor/protege’ relationships. If you find that you are having difficulty cultivating mentor relationships, don't fret. You are not alone.

If you have difficulty developing mentor relationships, seek out and create strategic allies instead. This is best accomplished by seeking opportunities to work with them on task forces, committees, or projects where they will have an opportunity to see your skills and what a great performer you are. Once you have demonstrated that you have the ability to make things happen, it will be in their direct strategic interest to give you advice.

In these turbulent times, people find very little provocation for feeling threatened about their jobs. Because of this, many are reluctant to cultivate protégés. When selecting a mentor, you can overcome this by pursuing those that are at least two levels above you in the organizational chart. They will be less threatened by you, and in a better postion to help you.

A mentor relationship takes time to develop. So don’t expect one to develop overnight. After the initial contact, you must get to know the person, working to explore the nature of the relationship and the areas of discussion. Tread carefully to test the strengths of, and limits of, the association. The relationship should then stabilize, as each of you discover what he or she can expect from the other.

Don’t wait for potential mentors to pursue you. Unfortunately, this rarely occurs for people of color. You have to seek them out.

A good way to establish contact with someone whom you desire to be your mentor, is to call them to discuss some item of mutual interest after you have had an opportunity to talk with them at a business or social event. Avoid being too forward at this stage. After your first meeting with them, ask them if they would be willing to meet with you again.

Document what you have learned from your mentor, but avoid at all costs writing down anything told to you in confidence.

If someone in power approaches and starts a conversation with you, listen for cues or hints that he or she might be willing to work with you. Follow up on any invitations to continue the discussion later.

Become a mentor yourself, even if you have only been working in your chosen profession for a few years, there are those coming up behind you that can use your help. Maintaining supportive relationships with up and comers serves to develop your own projects as well as your leadership skills. They can also give you the ability to tap into a network other than his or her own, keep tabs on what is going on in the organization or industry. It is wise to look at cultivating mentor relationships as seizing an opportunity, not kissing up.

Tips for mentoring

  1. Be open and honest with you assessments of you mentee.
  2. Connect with someone who understandings where you've been and where you are going.
  3. Relay options and opportunities, while allowing mentee to make final decisions.
  4. Mentoring is a two-way street. Make sure both parties are willing to commit to the relationship.
  5. Have some regularity of contact. Meet face-to-face on a periodic basis.

Tracey de Morsella is the Managing Producer of The Multicultural Advantage, a web site that provides resources designed to help minorities succeed in the workplace and employers increase their diversity staffing effectiveness. Her articles on diversity staffing strategies have appeared in over 100 publications and web sites, including: Monster.com, Society for Human Resource Management, Workplace Diversity Guide and Cultural Diversity At Work. Her diversity recruitment workshops have been attended by human resource professionals from Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, non-profit organizations and institutions of higher learning.

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