In the absence of a truly fascinating topic, I sat down at lunch in my favorite local deli/coffee shop to try to narrow down a topic. A quick flip through the Pulse App revealed that one of the hot topics for discussion right now is the importance of having career mentors, and for having the right career mentors. This is a topic which is never too far from the headlines, especially on places like LinkedIn or other career development websites. There are also more blogs and websites written about this very topic than you could shake a stick at, with this Huffington Post piece being a classic example.
One of the problems with most of these You-Need-A-Mentor-NOW type articles is that they all start from the premise that the reader is A) Working within a company that is big enough that the goal is to rise through the ranks of that company or B) That the reader is settled within their career sector and seeks to advance within that sector. What about those us who aren’t within those two situations? In particular, for those of us who are seeking to transition into a new career sector, there are added challenges to seeking a mentor. Where is advice that we can use as we navigate this tricky stage in our career development?
Then I found an article in Harvard Business Review by Priscilla Claman which is particularly useful for those of us who will not benefit from the standard inter-company or even inter-industry mentor situation. Claman recommends thinking outside-the-box for mentors in this situation, even to lawyers in the field or recruiters, neither of which are normally at the top of the list when you begin to think about finding a mentor.
Finding these potential mentors has never been easier thanks to tools like LinkedIn. Claman points out that it is necessary to do your research before you even approach the person; you want to make sure that person is the right fit before initiating a relationship. Besides internet-based tools, she also recommends becoming a member of the professional organization for the field, and if possible, attending a conference to make some personal connections. If that isn’t possible (after all, those of us in transition can’t attend those things without paying for it out of our own pockets and taking time away from existing jobs), look through past conference brochures and see if names consistently pop up as speakers/presenters/award winners, and don’t forget to look at the Vendor list as well. I also recommend looking to see if there are any industry podcasts you can listen to, which not only help establish your knowledge of the field, they can give you great ideas for potential mentors.
Next comes the challenge of making contact and establishing a relationship. As the ever-inspiring Dorie Clark cautioned in a 2013 article on How to Explain Your Career Transition, a common initial reaction to the statement that you are in a career transition is skepticism. Are you going through a mid-life crisis? Did you find out you couldn’t hack your first career choice? Are you actually qualified for the career you are trying to transition to? The key, Clark reminds us, is to make every response a highlight of or an explanation of the value that you bring to others, no matter who they are or what they do.
Once you have established a relationship, Claman reminds the reader that if you are going to have a mentor, you need to actually take their advice. For example, if you reach out to a recruiter and ask them to look over your resume to help you gain footing in the industry you are trying to convert to, you need to be willing to make the changes that they suggest. Once you have successfully transitioned, you also need to remember to thank everyone who helped you, and even more important, be willing to pay it forward to others who are seeking to make a similar transition.
In the end, one of your strongest adversaries in this process will be fear; the fear that you aren’t qualified, that it is too hard or too late to transition or that you will fail in the transition. I struggle with this myself, especially as I’m navigating a transition into the tech sector. Questions like “Do I need a computer science degree or will Tech Certifications do?” keep me awake some nights, along with the constant challenge of molding my skills and existing career experience into something that can translate into the tech sector. But as a wiser person once said,
100% of the chances you don’t take will end in failure.