How Mentoring Plays a Pivotal Role in Career Development

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The last two years have provided plenty of time for people to decide if they’re happy professionally and personally. For those who used this time to reflect, it has led them to recommit to jumpstarting their careers, whether that’s staying in their current job or finding a new one. And with this life-reflecting thought process, people are seeking advice, and the role of mentor is making a comeback.

Mentoring often conjures up an image of senior staff members offering career advice to entry-level or junior employees. Nowadays, though, mentoring means much more. With an increasing number of professionals reporting to younger supervisors, companies downsizing middle management and millennials veering away from wanting a traditional career-ladder approach to their professional development, the model of top-down mentoring is fading. Replacing it is a more flexible, multi-faceted approach that can support the new wave of those embracing career “lattices” (the concept that multiple skill sets in a variety of tasks make an employee more valuable to a company). If you are looking for ways to advance your career, think about getting a mentor. Here are some considerations to get started.

Be deliberate in your choice of mentors.

Choosing a mentor should be strategic. Take the time to reflect and think about where you are in your career and where you want to be. The skills you are trying to learn now are not the skills you needed a year ago, so you may need a new mentor to help support you in learning the new skill.

For example, if this is the year you become a parent, you may want to find a peer mentor who has recently become a parent and share tips on balancing work life and parenting. If you recently received a promotion, look for a mentor who can help you in that new role. A mentor should benefit you — don’t choose your best friend or co-worker just because they sit near you or you get along well. Choose mentors who will push you to achieve your goals for the future and who will support you where you are. And if you aren’t sure where you want to go career-wise, find a mentor who can help you sort that out.

Consider having different types of mentors.

Finding a variety of mentors who can help support in different areas of your professional development is important. Think about the following types of mentors:

  • Peer mentor. This is someone doing the job you are currently doing, an industry peer or a co-worker. It could be someone within your department or someone performing similar functions but at a different company. A peer mentor is someone who understands the nuances of your daily job, the ups and downs, what you must accomplish each day. They understand your industry terminology and use similar processes to do the job. A peer mentor offers professional advice to help you do your current job better.
  • Next-level mentor. This is someone who has the job you want to do in a few years. Someone who can help set you on the path to your next promotion, whether that is horizontal or lateral. A next-level mentor should advise you on how to develop the skill sets you will need for your next promotion, rather than the skill sets you need to do the job you have now. Sometimes this is where we start feeling stagnant. People often think when they’ve become good at what they do, they’ll be great at the “next step.” For example, someone who has mastered the art of proposal management may want their next step to be managing a proposal department. Simple, right? Actually no. Someone who manages a department needs a different set of skills to be a great people manager — skills that are different from managing proposals. Leading a proposal department includes being able to motivate staff, perform annual evaluations, cultivate others’ career goals, develop budgets, resource staffing, etc. These skills extend beyond the day-to-day project management of the proposal manager. The next-level mentor should help you determine what skill sets you need to develop to be successful in that next position.
  • Outlier mentor. This is an important mentor and one that is often overlooked because people think it’s a waste of time to have a mentor who isn’t on an identical career path as themselves. But that’s exactly why an outlier mentor is important. An outlier mentor should not be in your field, so they can bring a different perspective to the advice they give you. An outlier mentor should be someone you recognize as having a valuable characteristic, skill or trait that you need or want to emulate professionally. For example, maybe they’ve figured out the work-life balance. Maybe they frequently work on high-profile projects that put them in front of C-suite staff, and you want that, too. Maybe they are always the ones people ask to have on their team. This person should push you to think about your career development differently. This person should be the one to listen to your ideas. An outlier mentor plays a specific role in your mentoring because they aren’t burdened with the knowledge of how your job works. They’re important because they will challenge your perspective.

Be open to having multiple mentors.

One mentor at a time is fine, but it would be surprising if one person could give you the career advice you need in all areas of your life or be the professional sounding board you need for all 50-plus years you will likely be working. For some, it makes sense to have multiple mentors at the same time who serve different purposes.

In your private life, you probably have had or will have friends come and go through different stages: high school, college, and then your young adult, mid-life and retirement years. Your professional career is the same. What you need when you enter the workforce is not what you need when you are five, 10 or 25 years into your career.

If you are early in your career, it makes sense to have multiple mentors so you can get as much advice as possible to guide you. Peer mentors are important early on; they help you get through your day, teach you skills and encourage you. If you are mid-career, you might focus on next-level and outlier mentors — one in the job you want to have in the future and one who can help keep your eyes and ears open to other possibilities that will help you achieve your goals.

For example, let’s say you are working as a junior-level proposal manager, and you have set your sights on becoming a senior-level proposal manager in the next two years. A next-level mentor who is a senior-level proposal manager can guide you to develop the skills you will need, make recommendations for high-profile projects you want to work on and keep your name in front of decision-makers, whereas an outlier mentor may suggest you take a course in project management, coach you in how to advocate for yourself or help you develop evaluation goals that will position you for a promotion to your supervisor.

Determine what relationship of mentoring you want (i.e., formal or informal).

Now that you’ve chosen your mentors, you need to determine whether a formal or informal relationship would be best and then decide how you will ask the person. Keep in mind most people are more than happy to help. There is no right or wrong way to ask someone to mentor you. It can be a formal question to them via conversation or email or informally via unscheduled conversations. Keep it light and open-ended.

  • Formal mentoring. Literally ask the person if they are willing to mentor you on a formal basis. Set up quarterly or annual meetings with them. As the mentee, it will be your responsibility to come to these discussions with specific questions in mind. Don’t expect the mentor to know what you need help with, and don’t expect to leave each meeting with a plan. Sometimes the mentor may need time to think about the best way to help you. If time is of the essence, consider giving your questions to the mentor a week ahead of time so they have an opportunity to think through how they want to advise you. If you want to get advice from your mentor that you could parlay into your next goal-setting meeting with your supervisor, consider setting up a meeting with your mentor a few weeks before your meeting with your supervisor so you can test your ideas on your mentor beforehand. Formal mentoring relationships are great for the next-level or outlier mentor.
  • Informal mentoring. Maybe you are uncomfortable with a formalized approach to asking advice of someone. If casual is your game, once you have identified someone you think you could learn from, find opportunities to work with this person. Develop a relationship with them. Ask questions during your regular interactions with them. Keep it light. Take them to lunch. This is about relationship building. Informal mentor relationships are great for the peer mentor.

Mentoring is a two-way street. You don’t need to mentor your mentor. You can serve as a mentor to someone and a mentee to another. The point is, it’s up to you. A mentor can help you see where you are stalled and, perhaps, point you in the direction you want to be heading.


Heather Kircher, CF APMP, has more than 25 years’ experience in pursuit writing, editing, proposal management, strategy development and proposal training. Her focus is in the federal market, where she supports proposal efforts and specializes in leading large, multimillion-dollar IDIQ proposals. You can reach Heather on LinkedIn.

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