When I was young and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said what most kids say – a veterinarian.
Why, you ask? Was it my love of zoology or science? Was it because I was a pet-less (thanks, mom and dad) kid desperate to be around animals?
It was because when we are young, we look to the people around us for models of what we could be as adults. I saw people in lab coats and stethoscopes as heroes because of my own parents (a doctor and a nurse). I saw people run into them at the grocery store in our small town and thank them for helping them get better. They would look at me and my siblings and say, “Your mommy and daddy took care of me” or “Because of your daddy, I can walk again.” I wanted to have that impact on others – and with my love of animals, I thought I could do the same for them.
Even though I didn’t end up becoming a veterinarian (animal hair allergies sort of gets in the way of that) I did learn to look for people doing good things so I could model after them. Whatever career you are pursuing, it is important to look for mentors who live the life you want to lead or have the impact you hope to have on the world – and learn how they got there. You often hear in TV interviews – whether it be a world leader, celebrity, CEO, or professional athlete – that they credit their mentors as key to their success.
I credit much of my career to the many wonderful mentors I’ve had along the way.
To name a few: My writing professor gave me the confidence to know I could make a living doing what I love. My editor at the Houston Chronicle introduced me to the tough world of journalism and helped me narrow my focus on my strengths. My boss at the Mercatus Center taught me the importance of protecting your brand, being confident in yourself, and how diplomacy is absolutely essential to succeeding in your job. And my current boss has shown me what it’s like to have vision, ambition, and the drive to push yourself out of your comfort zone to do more than you ever thought you could. At State Policy Network, where I currently work, we have entire program set up to coach and mentor CEOs and executives around the country who are part of our network. These leaders often cite these peer and mentor opportunities as integral to their success.
Mentors are not easy to come by – a lot of people are very busy in their work and don’t take the time to coach a younger colleague. But for me personally, they have been well worth the investment.
Here are some ways to find and engage a mentor to help you advance in your career, and in life.
Have a clear idea of goals: When I was a kid, my goal was to be a hero like my parents. As you age, you narrow your focus and find out what being a “hero,” or what success, means to you. You’ll run into all kinds of people who could serve as mentors to you depending on your goals. In most cases, it’s someone who is on the career path you want to pursue. In other cases, it’s someone who is an amazing friend, confidant, or leader in their community. For me, I also look for the “supermoms” who are juggling having small children with the other obligations in life. Find those role models who embody characteristics or career milestones you hope to achieve one day.
Find the right fit: Some people are amazing role models, but they may not necessarily make good mentors. I have come across many successful people, but they are often too busy or not always good at helping others learn from their success. If they tell you, “I am a genius and incredibly talented,” that doesn’t help you very much. Instead, you want to find people who have an interest in your success or interest in teaching others. I had several mentors in college who were my professors and older students. Later in life, my mentors were people I worked for or worked alongside who had more experience than me. I have also reached out to people I admire but who had no idea who I was. For example, I studied journalism and when I graduated college, I reached out to several journalists to learn from their wisdom. I specifically focused on women because we can sometimes face different challenges than men. I lived in the Washington, DC area, and it was easy to meet with them for coffee or a drink after work. More often than not, they agreed to meet or chat on the phone because they remembered what it was like for them early in their careers. It helped if we had a mutual connection, whether it be a friend, colleague, or being an alumnus of the same journalism program. It’s always worth a try.
Be respectful of their time: Most people are busy, so when you first reach out to a mentor, they may not jump at the opportunity to have a 2-hour lunch with you (depending on your relationship). Usually someone like your boss will be willing to put in the time because it means you will be a happy, productive employee. If it’s someone you work with, an in-person conversation or coffee would be the best ask. If you can weave it into a pre-existing event like an office happy hour, even better. When I interned at NBC, I found an amazing producer who was not my boss, but who I had a lot in common with who I wanted to learn from. Her job was nuts, so I went out of my way to find pockets of time in between scheduled meetings to learn from her or ask her questions. If it’s someone who doesn’t know you well, a phone call would work, too. At that same internship, I was lucky enough to have a phone call with Savannah Guthrie to learn about her career path. In general, you want your first meeting to be relatively quick and then gauge their interest to build from there. You don’t need to be talking to your mentor every day. You can touch base once a year, once a quarter, or once a week, all depending on the nature of your relationship and their time. Just be mindful to read their cues and engage them as much as they are willing.
Listen, even when it’s hard: The purpose of a mentor is not to give you free connections and opportunities. It is to learn from someone who was in your shoes and can help you avoid their past mistakes. Be very intentional and thoughtful when you come up with questions to ask them so that you can apply those lessons to your own unique situation. They may tell you advice that is hard to hear, but it is important you hear it through a mentor rather than in a high-pressure situation. You may learn from the process that the career you thought you wanted isn’t really what you want. For example, I learned that a career in journalism was not ideal for me (at least for now) because it is very difficult to have a family in such a fast-paced, inflexible environment.
Put in the work: When I was young in my career, I never went up to someone and said, “Will you be my mentor? Tell me all your secrets and help me!” Once you find someone who is open to coaching you, you need to show them that you mean business – that you are serious about your goals and you are grateful for their time helping you get there. They are not going to help you or give you connections if they cannot vouch for your integrity or work. Throughout my career, I have served as a mentor through The Fund for American Studies journalism program. I invested more of my time and resources into the mentees who took the program seriously and were not looking for shortcuts. I did not offer to recommend someone until I could say I’d be willing to hire them myself. Your actions signal whether or not you are serious – if you do not follow up with a “thank you” after a meeting, if you are disorganized or late, if you appear to ignore advice, if you act like you know everything already, or if you disregard opportunities, you are sending the wrong message to your mentor. For example, I’ve gone to conferences with young professionals where I was a speaker on communications. The room was filled with students interested in communications, but very few of them approached me afterword to get my card and follow up. It’s astounding how many opportunities pass by young professionals who don’t take advantage of access to potential mentors.
Pay it forward: With each passing year, you gain valuable experience and insight that others can learn from. While it does take time to mentor others, it is worth spending your time on the right people. In turn, you help create the next generation of leaders in your profession or your community. I have had the pleasure of mentoring several young women over the years, and it is rewarding to see them grow and find their own paths to success. It is probably what I am most proud of accomplishing in my career.
This guest blog was written by Ladan Nowrasteh as part of the NeW 2022 Professional Development Week Blog Series. Nowrasteh is the director of development communications at State Policy Network. In this role, she works with the fundraising and communications teams to share the story of SPN and its achievements with a donor audience.