As an adjunct professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, I’m frequently asked how to find a mentor. When you’re just starting out in your career, the process of cultivating a relationship with a talented senior professional can seem daunting. How can you ensure they notice you and your skills? And what do you have to offer, anyway?
That was the feeling of one young professional who emailed me for advice.
“As a 23-year-old,” the note read, “I don’t always have great ideas for how to add value to top Fortune 500 executives, corporate lawyers, established Ph.D.s or more experienced professionals in general.”
While it’s true that someone in the position to be a mentor will almost always have access to more money, connections and experiences than you have, it’s also true that you have plenty to bring to the table. Most senior professionals would love to find a way to connect with younger employees and give back. Here are three ways you can stand out and get noticed.
Watch some of the world’s most successful women share the best advice they’ve ever gotten:
1. Offer to put in sweat equity
Heather Rothenberg was a first-year graduate student in engineering when she traveled to an industry conference. She attended a meeting for a women in transportation group and ultimately agreed to serve as their secretary. It certainly wasn’t glamorous work; she was responsible for taking notes, reserving conference rooms, ordering sandwiches and the like. Some people might think that Heather’s decision to spend time doing “scut work” was inefficient. But it also gave her unusual access to prominent senior professionals. When she finished her doctoral program, her fellow board members fought to hire her at their organizations, and she had her pick of appealing jobs.
2. Share your niche knowledge
Five months ago, a young professional named Mel wrote to me saying that she’d noticed a minor shortcoming on my website—an inconvenience that, if fixed, would mean a better user experience on my blog. The problem? It was an easy correction but had to be done manually for each of several hundred posts. It wasn’t critical, and frankly, it would probably never have risen to the top of my priority list. But instead of providing the suggestion and moving on, Mel offered to make the fix herself. Over a period of several weeks, she handled the issue without any real supervision, earning my gratitude and prompting me to take her out to dinner when I visited her city the following month.
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Mel had web-design skills to share, but that’s certainly not the only kind of expertise others can use. If you’re conversant with social media and a leader you admire has a lackluster online presence, you could engage her in a conversation about her use of social channels. If it seems appropriate, you could even volunteer to help him or her. If you organized events for a club in college, you likely have skills that could benefit a charity that your prospective mentor supports. Think back to your experiences and how you can apply those targeted skills to give back to the professionals you admire.
3. Attract others with your personal brand
When the Center for Talent Innovation interviewed senior leaders about what drew them to the younger employees for whom they became “sponsors” (i.e., super-mentors), one theme kept emerging: The junior professionals had strong personal brands. Being known within your company or your field will get you noticed by the potential mentor in the first place, and their own reputation will be burnished by their association with a rising star.
So how do you cultivate a powerful personal brand? There’s no one “right” way to do it, but consider showcasing your unique aptitudes by blogging, volunteering to lead a committee or studying to develop your skills in an area you can “own” at work. For instance, if you’re in marketing, you could take a class or read books on Facebook marketing so that you become the go-to expert inside your department.
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Many young professionals would love to have mentors in their lives but don’t even try to cultivate them because they fear they have nothing to offer. But remember that senior professionals are just as eager to connect with rising talent. With these strategies, you can quickly make yourself indispensable and build a relationship built on mutuality and trust.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out. You can download her free 42-page Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.
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