July 01, 2002
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio July 2002 Current Issue
July 2002 Tech filesPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:


By Sarah J.F. Braley

Who to turn to for valuable career advice, and how to make the most of the relationship

First, set priorities. Determine what you want to improve in yourself. Do you want to gain a skill? Increase knowledge? Change or improve an attitude?

If you’re looking to gain a skill, you don’t need a mentor, you need a coach somebody who does what you do, only better. A mentor is someone who can help you as an individual, perhaps by improving your communication skills or your conduct at meetings.

Look beyond your own department. Once you know what you need, you can start evaluating who could help with some part of it. Take a fresh look at numerous people past managers who have helped you develop, colleagues in other departments and in professional organizations, past teachers, vendors, even customers. You can look for more than one mentor.

The people you target should have some natural empathy with you, because the relationship will develop a degree of intimacy. Do not look to your current supervisor. It’s very difficult for a direct boss, who is responsible for your performance review, to be a good mentor.

Ask your peers for any recommendations. Consider approaching someone who already mentors others.

Think about style. Skilled mentors act as facilitators, but each one has a different modus operandi. Some use a sort of skill-book method, while others are more exploratory. Would you prefer someone with a methodical, left-brain approach or a more creative, right-brain approach?

Once you’ve chosen a potential mentor, find out her preferred communication style and use it to start the relationship. If she sends out a lot of e-mail, send her an e-mail. If she prefers face-to-face contact, go to her office.

Be informal and informational. Ask if you can have a few minutes in order to get her opinion on a decision you must make. Have a specific request. Don’t ask just to talk.

Be up front. Once you become comfortable and feel that all-important empathy, go ahead and ask if she would be interested in mentoring you. Then, over a cup of coffee, without any commitment, discuss what mentoring means to both of you. Don’t let any presuppositions get in the way. Mentoring is what both parties make it.

Before the first meeting, note three or four things you want out of the relationship, being as precise as possible. It can be as specific as, “I have an anger problem; can you help me work on that?” to a broader goal like, “I want to be more promotable.”

Rely on your mentors in several ways, including asking for advice, shadowing them at their jobs, practicing role-playing, and requesting critiques of writing or other work skills.

Make dates. Suggest times to get together, and let your mentor say what works for her. Try to meet once or twice a month, for 30 to 90 minutes, face-to-face if possible. Also agree on how you should approach her outside of the set times. Would it be all right if you sent an e-mail if an odd situation comes up?

Be patient. Results won’t come for about six months, and most mentoring relationships last about nine to 15 months. Every quarter, meet to evaluate whether you are achieving what you set out to achieve and whether your mentor wants to continue working with you.

This article was compiled with input from two consultants: Les McKeown, president and CEO of Tiburon, Calif.-based Deliver The Promise (, and Linda Phillips-Jones, Ph.D., of the Grass Valley, Calif.-based Mentoring Group (

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