August 8th, 2012 | 1:00 pm

Mentoring Matters: How to Develop Fruitful Professional Relationships

filed under Expert Answers

CindyBatesContributed by Cindy Bates, Cindy Bates, Vice President, Small and Medium Sized Business, Microsoft

When was the last time you sat down for coffee with someone who really cares about your professional development? When was the last time you treated someone else to lunch for the purpose of encouraging them in their career path? It’s easy to get sidetracked by daily demands, but fostering professional relationships can add tremendous potential to your career growth. Plus, building a strong network in business is crucial for overall well being and career satisfaction as well.

Over the course of my career, I’ve held a variety of roles in finance, business and technology – fields in which women tend to be underrepresented. In these roles, I’ve been able to observe and experience the importance of mentorship. I’ve also recognized the value of seeking strategic counsel, moral support and fresh thinking from my peers and mentors, and offering my own insights to other women seeking the same.

Making professional relationship-building a priority takes time, but it’s worth it. Here are some guidelines I’ve found helpful in creating the most value from professional mentor relationships:

Be the CEO of your career.

You have more responsibility than anyone for your own career growth. One of the best ways to navigate is to treat your career like a company of which you are the CEO. Any good CEO needs a solid group of advisors, so consider selecting three to five people to sit on your own personal leadership team. When asking someone to sit on your leadership team, be clear and upfront about what you’re hoping to get out of the relationship, including how frequently you’d like to engage with them. You’ll want to be able to invest quality time – perhaps one hour every 4-6 weeks – with each member of your team. Putting your expectations on the table doesn’t make you demanding; rather it’s a courteous way of helping a potential mentor know if he or she is suited for the role you are trying to fill.

Look around, and seek diversity of experience and perspective.
The greater diversity of experience and expertise, the more effective your mentors will be in helping you grow in new areas. Yes, it’s critical that you form relationships with other women who can relate to your experiences in business, but don’t do so at the exclusion of networking with male professionals as well. Find the right people in your field who have a vested interest in seeing women succeed. In so doing you’ll build bridges and gain even greater insight into what it takes to succeed as a woman in business. There are many ways to connect with potential mentors. Attend local meetings of professional groups for your industry, or tap into the free mentoring resources of organizations like SCORE. Keep in mind that your mentor doesn’t have to live in your town. Phone and even video conference calls can substitute for in-person interactions.

Take the reigns.

Your job as a mentee is to actively drive the agenda so that your mentor can share the insights and advice that are most helpful to you. Share your specific near term and longer term career goals with your advisors, and prepare for your meetings with them by developing a list of topics and questions in advance. This habit will ensure that you maintain an open dialogue and that time spent in more formal settings with your mentor never goes to waste.

Sometimes it’s what you give that gives you the most back.

As someone who has both been mentored and served as mentor, I’ve seen how the latter can reignite my passion for my own career and remind me of important lessons I have learned along the way. Being a mentor forces you to recall challenges and successes, and answer the type of questions that may spark new directions for yourself. As you come to realize the value of having a wonderful mentor, you should also recognize that the insights you’ve gained might help another woman in her career, so pass it on!

When you truly believe that devoting energy to mentoring relationships is a worthwhile investment, making time for these interactions comes a lot more easily. So my question to you is this – who are you having lunch with tomorrow? Make it count!

Cynthia (“Cindy”) Bates is the Vice President of Microsoft’s US SMB Organization where she is responsible for the company’s end-to-end SMB sales and marketing efforts, including SMB strategy, business development, regional field sales and national distribution sales, channel marketing, and customer marketing. Cindy and her team align Microsoft’s resources across customer and partner engagement to drive success in serving the millions of Small and Medium Sized Businesses in the US, helping them start, grow and thrive by leveraging today’s powerful and affordable technologies. At the pillar of these technologies lies cloud computing, in which Microsoft has more than 15 years of experience and understands how to meet the demands of SMBs for simplicity and impact, with enterprise-grade capabilities, flexibility and affordability in a familiar environment.

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