As a young professional, I found it easy to ask for help. Soon after I became the media relations director at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, I joined an email listserve for public relations professionals working in higher education. Each month, I sent hundreds of questions to colleagues all over the country. A former journalist, I had no experience in public relations, and I wanted to learn how to manage every challenging scenario. The research—in the form of invaluable advice from experienced professionals—made me more confident and better at my job.
I found it easy, even instinctual, to seek help when I began my new career. However, as the years progressed, I found it increasingly difficult to admit that I needed guidance. I suddenly felt pressure (self-imposed) to be the expert in my field. I did not want to appear weak or ill-informed. Fortunately for me, I worked with a wonderful team of marketing and PR professionals who immediately volunteered when they saw me struggling. And it was easy to advocate for those staff members. I enjoyed promoting their strengths and talents because I wholeheartedly believed in their abilities. If they needed support, I tried my best to connect them with the relevant resources. But, I struggled to do that for myself.
I knew I had to make a change. When dealing with a particularly tough public relations issue, I sought the advice of an articulate, accomplished, older female professional in my office. I visited her office and said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I have a problem…” She immediately stopped me and replied, “Don’t ever apologize for taking action.” She became my mentor at that moment. She once advised me to negotiate for myself like I would for someone else. So, I developed a habit: I began asking a small group of female colleagues for their advice regarding both professional and personal situations. And a great thing happened: they began responding with their questions. My mentor would laugh and say, “No one knows what they’re doing 100 percent of their time; some are just better at faking it. We’re all learning every day.”
A Harvard Business Review research report concluded that women believe hard work—not connections or relationships—will lead to their advancement. In reality, our professional network shapes much of our career. My mentor’s success helped me envision my own; her actions illustrated what my colleagues and I could accomplish. The below tips will guide you in finding a mentor who can positively impact your career.
– Create a career roadmap. Record your professional aspirations, and update them regularly.
– Study leaders—both at work and in the community—whose accomplishments you admire. Your mentor does not have to work in your field; she only has to be someone who shares your values and is accessible. Invite her to coffee, and ask her for guidance. Your relationship will grow organically.
– When your mentor challenges you—and she likely will—persevere.
– Serve on two community boards. Our community is always in need of fresh ideas, and participating in a non-profit allows you to network outside of your job.
– Observe projects outside of your department, and volunteer for those that interest you. Not only will you learn new skills, but you will also inevitably interact with new colleagues.
– Choose a few colleagues who work at your level, and don’t be afraid to seek their advice. They will likely reciprocate.
– Be available to new hires, and be generous with your advice.
I had the privilege of participating in ULM’s Mentorship Program in which I was paired with an energetic, ambitious, intelligent, enthusiastic, and creative young student. She reminded me of my own ambitions at her age, and she made me remember the power of optimism. Our partnership lasted two years, but the experience will stay with me for a lifetime. I am confident your mentors will enjoy similar satisfaction from working with you.
Originally published in Bayou Life Magazine.