Monday, June 29, 2009

Need a Shove?

One of the common threads I've found when interviewing people who have lost their jobs over the last year is the optimism most of them feel when they're first laid off. That lasts for about four or five months. Then, you can hear it in their voices: they're scared and frustrated and feel very, very alone.

I've been without work so I know how they feel. But recently I did a story on mentors -- how they can help your career not only when you have a job, but especially when things aren't going so hot. And while no one was portraying the mentoring experience as all fun and games -- it takes a lot of hard work and sometimes your mentor drives you a bit batty -- those I interviewed credited mentors with adding a lot to their lives.

I think we've all got to invest more in ourselves, no matter what our employment status. We need people in our corner, through good times and bad. Without those relationships, I think we risk making unnecessary mistakes, of letting good opportunities pass us by because of our own ignorance or perhaps our own fear. As this story show, mentoring may be just what we need:

Sometimes in our careers we need a kick in the pants. We need someone to push us, to make us see what’s possible and how we can get there. For people like Linda Swindling, that point came in college. For Christopher Wright, it came when he was enduring a job he hated.

Both turned to mentors. People in their lives who came along, saw their strengths and weaknesses – and for no pay at all – gave them invaluable advice that helped them land at better places in their career.

Now, at a time when most of us are confused and stressed about our jobs and career paths, mentoring programs appear to be more popular than ever – even employers are seeing the value in offering such support to employees.

Beth Carvin, CEO and president of Nobscot Corp., a retention management consulting firm in Honolulu, says that the company’s mentoring division, Mentor Scout, is currently doing a booming business. The program helps companies set up mentoring programs.

“It’s a way for companies to develop their talent, and it’s cost effective because they’re utilizing their resources internally,” Carvin says. “We’re seeing a huge growth in mentoring.”

Currently, about 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer mentor programs, but experts say no one in this economy should wait for an employer to find them a mentor.
“A lot of people don’t even think of it until they lose a job,” Carvin says. “You really need to think of it when you have a job.”

Swindling, a Dallas-based speaker and author, says that she’s used mentors since her college days, and still relies on them. “Mentors have really given me a push when I need it. They remind me of stuff I’m not doing and give me a different perspective,” she says.

Wright credits his mentor from decades ago with giving him the skills he needed to run his own mechanical engineering practice. “He was very open about what he was doing and very patient with my persistent questions and in helping me fix my mistakes,” Wright says.

Still, even with the fond memories for Swindling and Wright, both say that those going into a mentoring relationship need to understand it’s not always enjoyable.

“The truth is that just like with any relationship, there are downsides. My mentor got impatient with me at times, and there were times when I felt he could be too verbose. He could be maddeningly discursive,” Wright says.

Swindling adds: “You find some people who say they can help you and they’re lying. They just want you to help them sell their stuff. They want to use you.”
If you’re considering a mentoring relationship, those interviewed for this story have some advice. They say you should:

1.Plan ahead. “Nobody wants to just have you walk up to them and say, ‘I want you to be my mentor.’ You’ll freak them out. Tell them that you have a problem, and what you need from them in terms of help,” Swindling says. “Different mentors can be used for different aspects of your life. Don’t ask someone to do it all.”

Carvin adds that you should review your past jobs and relationships, weighing the best person to help you. A former boss? A Co-worker? Someone from an industry group? “Be thoughtful when you contact them, saying who you are, why you have chosen them and what you hope to gain. Also talk about what you expect from them in terms of time,” Carvin says.

2.Be patient. “It took a while to get close to my mentor. It was about two or three years before we really trusted one another. I trusted him to respond to my stupid questions, and he trusted me to ask about the things I didn’t know,” Wright says. “We were completely honest with one another.”

While not all mentoring relationships last for years, and may only be in place to complete a specific goal or project. Swindling, who now often serves as a mentor herself, says that mentoring is very time consuming so you must always be respectful and decide what would be the best use of the mentor’s time. “Sometimes I’ll say to someone who wants my help: ‘What are the top two things that we need to discuss?’”

3.Be realistic. “Keep in mind that rarely is the mentor going to be able to give you a job or introduce you to the person who has an immediate need. More likely, the mentor will help you down the path quicker and with more insight, which can later give you an edge on other job seekers,” Swindling says.

She also points out that mentors can help you submit a resume at a “higher level” and protect you from “automatic outs” like a spelling error on your resume.

4.Be observant. “I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to a convention and been seated right next to someone who can help me,” Swindling says. “People love to give back.”

Wright says he met his longtime mentor – who has since passed away – when he drove him back to his hotel after a business meeting. “We must have sat in the car and talked for an hour and a half. Then he offered me a job,” Wright says. “You can’t always have that kind of chemistry with a mentor, but that trust is critical.”

Notes Carvin: “Different mentors can offer you different kinds of help. The key is to always be looking, to always know what you need.”

What do you think is the key to having a positive mentoring experience?

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Workplace Mentors From Hell

I've never had a discussion about mentoring without someone offering a story about the mentor from hell. Stories of micromanagement, hostility, uninvolvment or just plain weirdness are some of the tales of woe from the mentees.

The most difficult situation is when the mentee can't find a way to put an end to the relationship. Finding a way to be diplomatic and not totally sabatoging a career while ditching a mentor at the first opportunity can be tough. Most mentees don't want to be disrespectful or unprofessional, but sometimes horrible mentors can push them to extreme measures.

I've written before about finding a mentor and making sure you both get something out of the deal, but is there a way to spot potential "bad" mentors before you enter into the relationship? Is there a way to check out the credentials of a potential mentor before you make the commitment? And, if you do find yourself disliking your mentor, should you just give it more time or get out as soon as possible?


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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Someone in Your Corner

There has been plenty of advice these days about how each of us is responsible for our own careers and our own success, but there is one aspect that has been overlooked when counseling such a strategy: It’s lonely. And scary.

It is not a weakness to admit you’d like to have someone in your corner as you plot your next move. You may feel isolated because everyone else is so intent plotting their own job strategies, or you may just be totally in the dark about what exactly a “next step” means.

Whatever the reason, forming a career path that makes sense for you can be a daunting task.

That’s why mentors can prove to be a gift from the gods for those who need someone not only providing advice based on experience, but a supportive pat on the back when it’s needed.

The advantage of having a mentor is that is gives you a person who will provide honest feedback in a secure environment. It helps you to work on the areas that you need to grow and develop.

While many companies help workers set up mentoring relationships, there are times when an employee may want to seek out help confidentially. In that case, begin by deciding your needs, your goals and your skill gaps. Then decide who would best help you meet those goals and needs.

Keep in mind that some mentoring relationships may last less than a year, and may end when a specific goal is accomplished. This short-term mentoring also may appeal more to the mentor, since it does not require a long-term -- and possibly endless -- drain on his or her time.

Once you’ve thought it carefully through, then you can ask this person to meet you for coffee or lunch, and test the waters. You want to be sure that anything that is said will be kept confidential if a mentoring relationship is established. Trust and confidentiality are critical because you’re going to really make yourself vulnerable by laying it all out there.

Another issue to consider is whether you need skill advice, or career advice. A professional organization or local university may be able to provide you a mentor that can improve a specific set of skills, but choosing a career mentor may require more time and thought since you will be plotting your next 10 or 20 years of worklife based on this advice.

Some other things to think about:

* Find a mutual benefit. When you find someone you think would be a good mentor, look for ways to offer something in return. If you're a technology whiz and the mentor is not, offer to help with this aspect.

* Be respectful. Show up for scheduled meetings, don't hog all the mentors time, listen carefully and take notes and make sure you always express your appreciation and above all, be willing to take the mentor's advice. If you're going to argue or ignore everything the person says, then you might as well forget it and let the mentor have his or her valuable time back.

* Pay it forward. Mentors have a sense of service to to others, or they wouldn't be helping you out. It's important to them to know they've had an impact and that their service will be passed on. Let them know that one day you hope to help someone else, if you haven't done so already.



Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Don't Let the Numbers Get You Down

I’m the first to admit I have never been a math whiz. In fact, when my kids have homework that starts off with something like “If a train leaves the station and is traveling at 80 m.p.h…” I sort of hear this buzzing sound in my ears and my vision starts to blur around the edges.

But I know that math is critical in our world, and I still hold in high esteem anyone who managed to make it through Miss Boren’s algebra class.

At the same time, I have to admit that numbers are starting to cause me the kind of anxiety I haven’t experienced since my statistics final in college. They seem to be everywhere. There are the book rankings (see below for “A Recovering Amazoniac”); the number of visitors to this Web site; the readership of my syndicated workplace column; the number of e-mails in my “in” box; the phone messages awaiting my attention; and the amount of money I’m earning.

Then, of course, there are the other numbers that stalk me in my private life – my car’s gas mileage; my exercise time; my weight; and whether I have enough credit card points to earn a dinner at Applebee’s.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m exaggerating the fact that numbers can often cause problems in our lives, especially at work. There is the employee who can’t get a promotion – or gets fired – because the numbers of a performance evaluation don’t add up, or the manager who gets burned out and leaves a company because he’s tired of spending more time filling in numbers on a report rather than focusing on his employees.

And, of course, there’s the unethical corporate leaders who have been seduced by huge amounts of money and abandoned their responsibilities to their employees and their company, causing much damage and heartache.

So, what is the solution? For me, it’s remembering that numbers are just, well, numbers. They are often out of my control, and constantly changing. They can be a tool, but just one tool and certainly not the only one.

When I’ve asked those who seem to be happy with their careers how they keep numbers from ruling their lives, they often ruefully admit that even they sometimes have problems with that issue. But, they say, they try and keep the numbers is perspective by focusing more on quality than quantity. They contend that the “good” numbers will follow the “good” work. Some of their tips include:

  • Giving back. If you’re not in the “gimme, gimme, gimme” mode all the time trying to boost your numbers, you retain better balance in your work and private life. That means that you mentor others unselfishly, and give credit to others when it is due.
  • Being honest. An executive once told me that when he worked at Microsoft Corporation he was trying to choose a new ad agency while preparing to launch a new product that was a direct challenge to a Lotus Corporation flagship product. It seems one agency thought to woo Microsoft business by telling him trade secrets about Lotus. His reaction was immediate: he reported the unethical conduct to company lawyers who then forwarded it to Lotus.
  • Sharing ideas. While it’s easy to hunch over the keyboard and commune only with the Internet, it’s the creative give-and-take with other people that generates the most satisfying work. I once interviewed two “co-leaders” of a company who told me the secret to their success was the fact that one “hacked through the forest undergrowth” while the other one “climbed to the top of the trees to see what was ahead.” They sat within a few feet of each other at work, and said they relished batting ideas back and forth all day, sharing what they learned. By sharing their ideas, they made the best decision for the overall well-being of their company.
  • Rooting for someone else. By cheering someone else’s success, by offering words of encouragement, you spend more time focused on the positive instead of harboring ill feelings or jealousies that can sap your emotional and professional reserves.

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