Library Advice: Why You Should Have a Professional Mentor and How to Get One
One of the most common challenges people share with me is that they don’t get enough good professional advice. Either they don’t know where to turn for advice, or they just don’t understand the value of shared experience.
They are left to wonder:
- Should I apply for that promotion?
- What is that job really like?
- What kind of reputation does that library’s director have?
- What is involved with serving on a professional committee or joining an organization?
There’s no reason we should stumble through our careers, just guessing at what our next right move might be. There are many people who truly want to help. Here’s how you can find a good mentor and how you can become one as well.
Question: I’ve heard over and over in workshops that I should have a mentor, but this is a small library and there’s really no one to ask. Where can I find a mentor?
This is why it’s important to build and maintain a network. You might meet someone sitting next to you at a workshop table. Or you might be having lunch at a conference next to someone you’ve never met who really seems to have a lot of great advice. Or you might be leaving one job for another, and you realize you’re really going to miss that one person who always seemed to care about your success. There are lots of opportunities out there, and there’s really only one secret to connecting with great mentors — you have to ask them!
I’ve never run into anyone in our profession who didn’t want to help someone else be successful. In my own work, I end most of my presentations and classes with an offer to continue to be of help in the future. “Just email me,” I say.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to make those connections. I heard one story from someone who emailed the author of a professional book to get a bit more information — and ended up landing a mentor for life! Sometimes you can find a mentor close to home; it might even be someone who works in the same library as you. The point is, no matter where you meet someone, near or far, don’t be afraid to ask them if they’d be interested in mentoring you.
Inquiring if someone might be willing to mentor you is not tantamount to issuing a life sentence. Mentors and mentees can work loosely together through emails and phone calls, or they can stay even more engaged with face-to-face meetings — it’s entirely up to you. There’s only one way you can be absolutely certain you’ll never find a mentor — you never ask!
Question: What is appropriate and what is inappropriate for me to ask my mentor, and what situations should be totally off limits?
The answer to this question will depend entirely on the two of you.
- How well do you know one another?
- How well do one or both of you know others who might be able to help you with some of your questions?
Often, confidential issues and challenges that can’t be solved by talking to your current supervisor can be phrased and approached diplomatically, respectfully and professionally with your mentor.
If you want to be really discreet (and if your mentor doesn’t know enough about your situation to be able to figure out the clues), you can even change the names or details of your problem, so the entire situation seems more hypothetical. But, more often than not, honesty is the best policy, and that’s why an understanding of total confidentiality must be a foundation for any new mentor-mentee relationship.
Maybe yes, maybe no. One question to consider is whether or not your boss is going to be involved in (or maybe even be the root of) the concerns you’re facing. If that’s so, then it might be worthwhile to find a mentor who is not familiar with your library or other people involved. (There’s no rule that says you can only have one mentor!)
However, there are times when having that close connection can actually be helpful, since your mentor would have a more complete understanding of your situation and be able to lend additional knowledge and insight. Whether or not that could work to your advantage will depend in very large part on how much you can trust the confidentiality of your arrangement.
Question: I would love to pay back all the help I’ve received in my career and become a mentor — but what kind of commitment would that take?
The level of commitment in any mentoring relationship varies greatly. You’ll meet people you may only contact one other time in your career, specifically because the question you have or the advice you need is such a perfect match to her/his background and experience.
There will also be times when you develop a relationship where you regularly get together. With the amazing levels of communication that today’s technology offers us, we can use everything from email to Skype™ to stay in contact with one another, or we can go old-fashioned and use the coffee shop around the corner. But no matter what side of the mentoring relationship you’re on, it’s critical to be dependable.
Occasionally rescheduling is one thing, but consistent oversight, canceling or forgetting scheduled connections can do real damage to the relationship you’re trying to build.
Question: What if there is really no good answer for my mentee’s question except to quit and look for a new job? What should I say then?
The answer to this question can be applied here or to any other situation that comes up during your mentor-mentee experience. Be honest, but remember that, in the discipline of appreciative leadership, we learn that any message, no matter how potentially negative, can be respectfully delivered if it is accompanied by a positive comment or solution.
Instead of saying, “Give it up. There’s nothing you can do. Your situation will always be terrible. There’s no solution to your problem,” you might say, “Let’s look at all of your options, from solving the problem you have right now to thinking of alternative choices you might make if your solutions don’t work out.”
Be honest, but also be supportive, positive and helpful. That, after all, is what people turn to mentors for in the first place.
Question: I’d love to be a mentor to someone, but what do I know that’s worth sharing? Shouldn’t mentors really be directors or even retirees with years of experience?
No, no, and no. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has experience, knowledge, instinct and advice to share that can be very valuable.
Are you a student? If you’ve had even one class that a potential mentee hasn’t had, then you have experience to share.
Are you new to your job? If you’ve been on it even one day more than a potential mentee, then you have something to share.
Remember, being an effective mentor isn’t always exclusively about sharing what you’ve done. It’s also about sharing your thoughts, your ideas, and your insights and caring about the other person’s professional development. Just care enough to listen and offer your very best thoughts, whether they are based on personal experience or hope. You’ll be helping someone, and you can’t go wrong with that.