As you take the next steps in your career, do you have the right mentor? You may think a mentor is a person within your organization who has more experience than you do, who coaches you and looks out for you as you move up the ranks. You can rely on these mentors for advice because of their more senior perspective. While this definition is technically accurate, it only takes into account one type of mentor. This type of mentor is great support to have, but can an in-company mentor provide the same level of support when you want to look beyond your current organization? They may be able to start you off with advice or leads, but their area of influence is usually within a single organization.
Just at the moment that you really need professional advice from someone senior and more experienced, you are on your own. But don’t despair! There are mentors you can cultivate to help you during your transition.
Instead of leaning solely on those within your organization, broaden your search. Consider industry- and profession-focused mentors. These mentors have a reputation for broad knowledge of more than one company or industry and can be found in many different places: a professional association, a recruiting firm, a law firm that specializes in an industry, etc. One profession-focused mentor I know is a recruiter who freely shares his knowledge with human resources professionals in transition. He has a reputation for knowing everyone and happily meets with people who need a coach. Alternatively, an industry-focused mentor I know has been an executive in startup biotech firms. He is always ready to talk to people looking into biotech because he is always on the lookout for talent. Many consultants and vendors are also industry- or profession-focused mentors, as they have a perspective that crosses many organizations and know where openings are likely to occur.
Industry- and profession-focused mentors provide you with advice about how you should present yourself, which employers you should target, and how your resume could be improved. They can even suggest contacts or make connections. But you will need to ask for that advice, and once you’ve asked, you have to follow it. That means, don’t ask what they think of your resume unless you are prepared to change it. If they recommend you do some digging to prepare for an interview, do it. These mentors know they have a reputation for helping, and they don’t want to waste their time. If you don’t follow through on their suggestions, they will drop you and move on to someone else.
It’s also your responsibility to keep the connection going. Follow up, not just with a thank-you note or email, but by taking their suggestions, even if you don’t really think they will do you any good. Being referred by Mr. Biotech is great for your reputation, even if you never want to work for that big pharma company he referred you to. After your big pharma meeting, thank Mr. Biotech as well as the person you met with. Ask your mentor follow-up questions via email or in face-to-face meetings to keep the relationship open. Repeat this process with any suggestion your mentor has made. Stay in touch regularly with updates on your search.
How do you find industry- or profession-focused mentors? The easy way is to join a professional or industry association. Go to their meetings or local conventions. Is there a name that crops up over and over, either as a speaker or as a sponsor? Whom does the organization give awards to? Or, just ask around: “I’m very interested in this field. Is there someone you know who could give me an overview?” The same names will come up again and again.
Read the conference programs for the names of consultants and vendors who sell to members of the association, as well. Since they are most likely also at the conference, you can just walk over, explain that you are in transition, and ask them whom they recommend. Remember, you are looking for an experienced, senior person who is known for helping others. Keep asking, and you will come up with a mentor for this transition sooner than you think.
If you are lucky, you may meet a senior person while you are searching who takes a real interest in you and your career. They could be people that you are directly introduced to through your mentor or even someone you meet in passing at a conference or networking event. These people, who I call “surprise” mentors, often enjoy taking someone under their wing and helping them, in spite of how busy they are. Pay attention to those experienced people you meet with whom you have a special connection. Give them special attention and follow up. Take advantage of the opportunity before it disappears.
For example, a friend of mine went through an agonizingly long hiring process for a position in Washington D.C. During it, she hit it off with one particular interviewer. When she didn’t get the job, she had the presence of mind to write a nice note thanking this person for making her feel so comfortable during the interview process. To her amazement, she got a return email offering all kinds of help and connections. She continued the relationship and got an even better job thanks to her surprise mentor. In cases like these, all you need to do is be grateful and stay in touch with regular updates on your progress.
All mentors place a high personal value on helping others, whether for the good of the profession or industry, or simply because they like you. So, if you want to really pay back a mentor who helped you during your transition, think about “paying it forward” — become a mentor yourself. Volunteer for a professional association or for a conference. Offer to talk about your industry at a local college. Let your mentor know you are giving back.
Finally, when you find your new job, write a thank-you note to all the people who helped you, give them your contact information, and tell them you would be happy to help anyone in transition the way they helped you. They’ll see the fruits of their labor, and they may just stay on as your mentor, even as you’re settling into your new position.
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