You, Me, and that Mentor | By Nitasha Happy

As a freshman university student, I wasn’t confident in the direction I wanted my career to go. Of course there were students who knew exactly what they wanted to do and had mapped out every step of their academic journey. I wish I had been equally as inspired, but I joined many of my peers on a journey of confusion and slow progression from one faculty to another.

My foray into academia started in science with the goal of becoming a paediatrician, which was quickly upended when I realized how many years of school I had ahead of me. I decided, instead, to migrate to pharmacy. Unfortunately, this subject didn’t hold my interest for long either. My last attempt was an introduction accounting class, which I surprisingly enjoyed. Eureka! I entered business the following year and began my pursuit of an accounting major. With the intention of pursuing a Chartered Accounting designation, I hastened to join the co-op program to get my first taste of the cut-throat corporate world.

This was the best decision I made over the course of my academic career. For those who may consider the co-op program to be a useless endeavour, I put to you the greatest benefit it can provide: experiential knowledge. This program gives you the opportunity to experience an industry before graduation, allowing you to either re-confirm your decision or change your mind altogether about your career trajectory.

My first co-op term was at a company called Champion Petfoods, which is where I met my long-time mentor. Our relationship as mentor and mentee developed organically.  After my first two weeks, he said to me, “Congratulations, you passed! If I didn’t see you excel in your position within these first two weeks, I was going to let you go.” Ouch, welcome to corporate America indeed! It was three months later that I had my first conversation regarding my future path with my newly acquired mentor. Over the years, my mentor has helped me develop my technical and social skills. Our sessions together helped me further identify my interests and plot out my future. Many individuals have asked me, “What drove your mentor to take you under their wing?”

GREAT MENTEES

In my experience, mentors look for certain qualities in a mentee. If the mentor is going to invest time and effort in you, they want to be sure that you have the work ethic and skills to excel. When it comes to work, everyone needs advice, but you want to be able to attract the right mentors. The process can be a little different for everyone, but there are certain qualities that you should develop to secure the right mentor. 

It is important that mentees recognize that mentorship is a two-way street. Developing and maintaining a mentor and mentee relationship must be slowly nurtured with dedicated time commitment from both sides. Ensure you are adequately prepared when meeting with your mentor and establish regular channels of communication to ensure you are not forgotten.

Moreover, learn to gracefully accept constructive criticism and remember that your mentor is there to give you feedback, some of which will not be positive. Use their advice as an opportunity to assess and improve on some of the your weaknesses, rather than as an assault to your personal character. Remember, accepting their criticism reflects on your willingness to consider and evaluate the merits of their point of view.

Have some clarity in your career goals and share them with your mentor! Vocalize what you envision yourself doing and what role you would like to see yourself fulfilling. Sharing is crucial in a mentor and mentee relationship; your mentor can only help you if you are willing to let them in. Always be clear about your professional and academic goals.

LOOKING AHEAD

One thing my mentor tells me regularly is “you have to push me on your career development.” A valuable exercise my mentor facilitates within our team every year is to map out a five-year career progression. This is a great activity because it forces you to think about the position you’d like to acquire in the short-term. Once you have that understanding, you can determine what steps you need to take to get there. Planning your career progression can be neglected in the everyday minutia of work tasks, but it can help you evaluate all the decisions you make. 

Sometimes, we find ourselves pushing in the direction we perceive to be correct, although it might not leave us with a sense of fulfillment. Weather you are contemplating entertaining other job offers, or are struggling with how to tackle certain work projects, a mentor can help you along the way. During these times, it is important for you to re-examine where you are heading with the guidance of a mentor. The career progression exercises and the advice of my mentor have really helped me develop my ideal path. 

Because I am a visual person, laying out my plan made everything less daunting and confusing. A helpful thing to do if you’re unsure of your career path is to take a shot at mapping out your progression and then sitting down with your mentor to sift through their knowledge. Instead of accounting, I am now in project management and I love my job. I owe a lot of that to my mentor. Mentors push you to be better and they hold you accountable. It is good to have a third party who is interested in your future and understands your skill set.

GREAT MENTORS

In general, great mentors have been beneficiaries of past mentors, and feel an obligation and strong desire to give back. So, what makes a great mentor? Mentors need to be more than just successful; they have to be leaders who are receptive to young talent and are selfless in sharing what they know. If you have the experience, share it!

Ultimately, to get mentees excited about the industry and profession you have chosen, you must exhibit enthusiasm for that field. It is important to show your mentee the range of possibilities that are available to them. Highlighting how the industry has grown and changed in the past years will allow to them to realize that their career does not have to follow a linear path. Furthermore, it is important to share both successes and failures. By communicating your failures with your protégé, you humanize yourself and become more approachable. The goal should be to emphasize what you learned from the experience, and how it has contributed to your continuous improvement.

I would argue that one of the most important qualities of a mentor is the willingness to invest and develop in their mentees’ skills and talents. Being able to assess the intersection of their interests, talents, and what their company needs from them is important for a mutually beneficial relationship. In my case, my mentor capitalized on my technical skill set and acknowledged it by giving me more opportunities to lead IT and marketing related projects.

For four years, I have had an amazing mentor. Now, I stress the importance of finding one to everyone in my life. If you haven’t found a mentor yet, I hope you are running to find one now. While you’re at it, take a shot at mapping out your five-year career progression. You never know – you might unearth a passion or skill that was previously unknown to you.

Good luck!

Banner photograph courtesy of Wanderer Online Photography Editor Bryan Tran.

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