Mentoring: all the tricky questions, answered.
Written by Stefani Janson
Edited by Hannah Carle
Why should I have a mentor?
A great mentor is like a 6-in-one multicooker: they’re a career advisor, study assistant, networking coach, opportunity creator, proofreader and confidant. Given the current professional climate with more workers than there are jobs, building a solid network is an essential part of your professional journey.
What exactly does the landscape in Australia look like? In some states, there are up to 46 graduates competing for each advertised role. Furthermore, one study by the Australian Department of Employment shows that one third of jobs are not formally advertised, with an estimated 17 per cent of all potential jobs being advertised through word of mouth alone. This is where a mentor comes becomes so valuable; someone with experience that can help you network, finesse your offering as a professional, and gain a competitive edge.
Where can I get a mentor?
If you’re still at University, your faculty is sure to have a mentoring program with senior year students in your course. If you’re lucky, your student society or faculty may also pair you with an industry mentor. If your university does not offer any mentoring, various professional industry bodies often do. The state regulatory body for Victorian lawyers, for example (Law Institute of Victoria), offers a program that pairs young lawyers and law students with established professionals.
Another example if Out for Australia, which has a professional mentoring program for LGBTIQ-identifying students that cater for a wide range of professional industries. Be sure to note any deadlines for these opportunities: some programs only run once a year and you must apply at the commencement of each calendar year. We suggest that for any formal programs such as those above, you do your research at Christmas in preparation for the following year.
There is also the option to engage with mentorship for a small fee. One novel program is Mentor Walks which let's you join established female professionals for a monthly morning walk for $25 in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. A different platform, InsideSherpa, allows you to link with professional mentors in law and professional service firms (think accounting, banking and finance and consulting). Each 'sherpa' provides their time at a fee, however, many donate a portion of this to the Black Dog Institute in support of mental health initiatives. These mentors can offer help with reviewing cover letters, your CV, key selection criteria, and can even conduct mock interviews for you.
Lastly, in looking for a good mentor, take advantage of your personal network; your best friend’s aunty may just be the mentor you’re looking for! Be bold and ask around. If you don’t ask, you'll never know. Start with a coffee catch-up; you have nothing to lose, only caffeine and professional insights to gain.
So now I have a mentor, what am I supposed to do?
Think of your mentor as a trusted advisor – someone you can be honest with and gain insight from. But remember, it’s a professional relationship. If you were a mentor, would you recommend a mentee if they were a blubbering mess? Probably not. It is integral, therefore, to make sure you act and look professional during interactions with you mentor (and ensure you don’t confuse the role of a mentor with a counsellor). Additionally, remember that your mentor is busy and giving you the benefit of their time; use your initiative to organise meetings and follow up with them afterwards.
What should I do on the first meeting?
As a first point of call, I suggest sending your newfound mentor a copy of your CV and a summary of your background. This will allow them to quickly and easily get to know you and your professional journey so far.
When it comes time to meet your mentor, let them set the time and location (this gives you a sense of what they prefer – they may be a daytime coffee person or a night time wine bar type). You can suggest the next location once you’ve scoped them out. Offer to pay the bill, but if they do, commit to paying next time (and ensure you keep your promise). After the meeting, make sure you thank your mentor through email or text for their time and valuable insights.
Extra tip: mentoring relationship do well for having defined goals. Make short term goals that are reasonable to achieve in one month, three months, six months and a year, which you can then discuss, work on and track together with your mentor.
What about in between meetings?
Mentors love hearing about your journey, so update them on your progress: if they’ve connected you with another professional or have proofed an application, let them know how it went. You can also send anything you think would be of interest to them. See a professional industry article that would interest your mentor? Link them. Know your mentor is going on holiday to Japan? Send the ‘Must eats Tokyo’ article that pops up in your feed. Listen to a great podcast or inspirational TED talk? Shoot it through. In doing this, you create value for your mentor and make the relationship a two-way street.
How else can a mentor help me?
A mentor is all about trying to assist you with opportunities. If your mentor is a barrister ask if you can sit in on a court day. If your mentor works at a Not-for-Profit ask if there are any volunteering opportunities. If your mentor works at an accounting firm ask if there are any casual roles. Again, you must drive the relationship with your mentor. Professionals are busy and although they have your interests at heart, they have a million other competing interests swirling in their head. Being direct about what you are looking for creates a win-win situation that is easy for you and your mentor to achieve. At the end of the day, the worst they can say is no!
This being said, there is tact required when asking about these opportunities. Don’t turn up to a meeting with your mentor and ask point blank whether they have any opportunities going: this will feel very transactional and may be off-putting to the mentor. Rather, aim for the first half of the meeting to be focused on relationship building, then weave questions about opportunities into the latter half of the conversation.
I have had mentors look over my cover letters and CV, applications and even assignments—again, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. But, approach with caution and give them plenty of turnaround time.
What should I do if my mentor organises an opportunity for me?
Most mentors share their network with caution so, if they set you up with someone, it means they trust you to set a good example. Both of your reputations are on the line, so smash the basics out of the park; arrive early, dress well (and appropriately), turn your phone on silent and come prepared. In the aftermath, follow up with your mentor and their contact with by sending a thank you email or text. Satisfying these basics will increase the chances of your mentor and new found contact connecting you with others in future.
What if I don’t click with my mentor?
Give it at least two to three meetings to discern whether you and your mentor are a good match. Sometimes people have bad days or take time to come out of their shell, so give them a chance. But, if after your initial meetings you don’t think you and your mentor click, ask your mentor if there’s anyone in their network they could connect you with instead, providing specifics of the kind of mentor or mentoring relationship you are looking for. This creates a win for you and your mentor, wherein they’ve helped you and you’ve gained another potential professional connection. Alternatively, if you’re in a defined program, you can contact the program coordinators to express your concerns, to which they may be able to re-match you.
Does the mentoring relationship end?
Every mentor should serve a different purpose and you should set defined goals and a time frame with your mentor. This being said, the end of formalities doesn't mean the relationship ends. Keep in touch with your mentor after your agreed time period; add them on LinkedIn, for instance, or initiate an occasional coffee catch up to foster an ongoing connection.
Ultimately. being a mentee is a very rewarding and educational experience. Drive the relationship, have fun and, as your own career flourishes, pay it forward by becoming a mentor yourself someday.