August 14th, 2013 | 6:00 am

Looking to Get Ahead in Your Career? Look for a Mentor.

filed under Expert Answers

SusanVitaleContributed by Susan Vitale, Chief Marketing Officer, iCIMS

Women who want to get ahead in their careers often focus on forming alliances at the workplace, making friends who can provide a sympathetic ear in a highly competitive environment and support them as they attempt to navigate the corridors of power. It’s important to have friends – in life and on the job – and it’s crucial to form positive, productive relationships at the workplace. But when it comes to getting ahead at work, it’s far more important to find a great mentor than a BFF.

Mentors and mentees can also be friends, of course, but the mentor-mentee relationship has qualities that are distinct from the typical friendship dynamic. Friendships often arise from shared personal interests and experiences, and friendship connections frequently happen by chance. When you’re looking for a mentor, it’s more effective to pursue that goal deliberately: While you might be fortunate enough to find a great mentor through happenstance, savvy professionals who understand the value of a mentor relationship will proactively look for mentors and enlist their support.

Finding a mentor is important for a woman at any stage in her career, but a mentor relationship is particularly advantageous for younger women who are just starting out. A good mentor can help a newly minted professional identify her key strengths and find ways to use them to get ahead. By offering an objective perspective and, most importantly of all, challenging a mentee and making sure she challenges herself, a great mentor can make the difference between success and failure.

What to Look for in a Mentor

If you are looking for a mentor, it’s a good idea to focus on the key qualities you’ll need in a mentor-mentee relationship when evaluating potential candidates. Respect for the prospective mentor’s professional accomplishments and approach to conducting business is crucial: You should select a professional whose opinion matters to you, a person you respect and admire.

Another important quality in a mentor is honesty: You need to select a straight shooter – a person whom you trust to give you the unvarnished truth. Great mentors provide insights that can help you grow and change, which means their contributions often come in the form of constructive criticism. Being receptive to the mentor’s take on career situations is also important for professional growth. You don’t necessarily have to agree with everything your mentor says, but when you’re in a productive mentor-mentee relationship, you should commit to keeping an open mind and taking your mentor’s valuable perspective into account when developing your career strategy.

Finding the Right Mentor

Women who are seeking mentors in the workplace generally have a number of options available to them, including their direct supervisors (who are, after all, in charge of helping them advance professionally as part of their job description) and other senior members of their department’s team. When arriving at a new workplace, women who are looking for mentors should reflect on the qualities needed (respect, honesty, etc.) and identify potential candidates. Approach the process of identifying and engaging a mentor as you would any business project that is vital to your future.

Although it’s great to find a mentor on the job, where he or she will have insights about that particular workplace, mentors don’t necessarily have to work for the same company or even in the same industry. A mentor is a teacher, someone who can provide you an example and offer counsel when you are focused on getting ahead at work. Anyone who is willing to help you grow professionally and who has valuable insights to share about handling relationships at work and contributing value to the company can be a great mentor.

What the Right Mentor Can Do

The best mentors are capable of identifying your strengths and weaknesses and helping you leverage your personal assets and overcome your deficiencies. Even the most ambitious and talented professional woman has blind spots, and it’s tough for anyone to objectively assess her own performance. This is where a great mentor can work wonders.

With the right mentor, women who are focused on career advancement can create short- and long-term goals, find new perspectives on seemingly intractable issues and use their talents to their best advantage. They can ask their mentor for advice on career strategy and discuss ideas to improve professional effectiveness. Best of all, mentors can help mentees advance by challenging them professionally, and making sure they challenge themselves to be the best at what they do. That’s the real value a great mentor can provide, because successfully meeting professional challenges is how we move ahead.

Susan Vitale is Chief Marketing Officer at iCIMS, a leading provider of innovative Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) talent acquisition solutions. The company’s best-in-breed suite of services enables HR professionals to manage their organization’s entire talent lifecycle from sourcing to recruitment marketing to applicant tracking to onboarding, all within a single web-based application. Susan directs iCIMS’ go-to-market and portfolio strategy to drive corporate growth and product adoption.

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