by John Burfitt
24 May 2019
Whether you’re in your first job out of uni or your first decade as a freelancer, there are bound to be some hurdles and situations you’d dearly love direction on. And it’s a fact that having a mentor in your corner – someone who can come to the party with advice and guidance – can be handy indeed.
Freelancers can have a bigger advantage in finding mentors, as we’re working with so many different publications, editors and clients – and interviewing potentially dozens of people every year. Ironically, the most well-connected freelancer might be the most in need of a mentor, especially if you want to grow your business or develop specific skills and aren’t quite sure how to go about it.
Many think that mentoring is simply a form of coaching – but that’s not quite right. Coaching can be something you do for a short time with someone in your industry to help you work through specific challenges. Mentoring is often more of a long-term advisory process and while the mentor may be in your field, they might not – but they will have useful insights and advice on progressing in business.
Mentoring is defined by the US company Management Mentors as, ‘A professional relationship in which an experienced person (the mentor) assists another (the mentee) in developing specific skills and knowledge that will enhance the less-experienced person’s professional and personal growth’.
Across my career, I’ve been lucky to have had three significant mentors. The original was my first magazine editor who taught me how to write and how to operate within the media. Ten years later another mag editor showed me that expanding my skills was key to longevity. The third was a marketing director who predicted big changes ahead in media and stressed I needed to be equipped to be ready with what was to come.
Chances are, you won’t keep the same mentor throughout your career. And the difference between that amazing trio who mentored me was that the first two were older than me – and the third was five years younger. That shattered any myths that a mentor has to be older, with more years of experience under their belt. It was a good lesson that a mentor is someone whose opinion, ideas and outlook you respect and you want to learn from.
That scenario played out again in recent years after I began teaching at university and developed my own mentoring program helping guide a number of former students into media roles and negotiate the way through the early years of their careers.
Some of those former students, now a few years into their careers, have turned the tables and are today mentoring me, explaining the evolving landscape, helping me learn new skills and offering advice about coping with the ever-changing rules.
Which is why I believe, no matter what stage your career is at, that a good mentor is worth their weight in gold and can make the world of difference to your career – whether you’re 25 or 55.
All of which sounds nice, so where do you get a mentor and how do you know they’re the right one for you?
Joining professional organisations, attending conferences, lectures and seminars in your industry is a great first step in finding potential mentors. But don’t be afraid of finding mentors who are outside your industry too; I know a journo who interviewed a mover and shaker in the diversity field who she connected with so well, she approached her separately as a potential mentor.
Good mentors don’t sit around waiting for keen people to knock on their doors. If you know someone who you respect, admire their careers and know you could learn from them, reach out to ask if you can arrange a meeting and discuss if they are willing to become your mentor. When one freelance colleague I know did this with one of the most successful freelance writers in town, he found not only was she keen to mentor him, but her advice changed the course of his career. They continue to meet up three times a year – and he always pays for lunch.
Listen up – as in, really listen. A good mentor is someone you want to ask about their experiences and learn from their stories. So listen, take notes and use the lessons of their experience to your advantage.It’s not your chance to whine and hope they come up with the solutions.A good mentor knows what it takes to be successful, and demonstrates a level of practise to achieve goals. If you don’t connect, then that person is not the mentor for you. Keep looking.
You want your mentor to be as enthusiastic about their job and career as you are about improving yours. Your mentor should be inspiring and positive, and willing to help you develop your skills. It is not up to them to follow-up, set appointment times or convince you about the next steps you need to take. The ball is in your court and if they offer nuggets of great info and details, then act upon it.
Some people can handle feedback and others can’t. Yet it’s constructive feedback you need from your mentor to help you focus on your strengths and weaknesses, and to understand how to take your skills and career to a higher standard. It’s essential you listen to the feedback, never take it personally, and even if it provokes a reaction, consider what is being said. Remember, a mentor’s feedback is almost always coming from the right place.
The mentor-mentee relationship can change – and that can be a good thing. One colleague shared her tale of an older mentor who had been great, but it turned when his own career took a bad turn with a series of shutdowns. He went from enthusiastic to being despondent about the media landscape. The tables eventually turned and the mentee eventually helped guide the mentor into a great new role. At that point, she realised she knew more than she gave herself credit for, took notice of her own advice, acted upon it, and she’s done very nicely ever since, thank you.