One of the best decisions I ever made was to get a mentor. As a relatively new project manager, I approached a manager I respected and asked if she’d be my mentor. She was delighted that I’d asked her. We didn’t meet often, or very formally, but knowing she was there made a difference to my confidence.
That’s what Elizabeth Harrin, founder of Girl’s Guide to Project Management, told us about her first experience with a mentor. In this article, she goes on to weigh up the pros and cons of different ways you can find your own project management mentor.
A mentor is someone who acts as your trusted advisor. At work, they are normally a manager in a more senior role than you. You meet with them regularly as an opportunity to discuss problems or challenges, and to learn from their experience. Think of a mentor as someone you can turn to for impartial advice when the workings of your company get too difficult or you need to understand a new concept.
Mentors also get something out of this relationship. When I mentored junior project managers, I always learned something – better ways to communicate, new insights into old problems. It’s definitely a growth opportunity for both parties.
So, with numerous studies praising the benefits of having a mentor, you may be tempted to get one for yourself. Where do you start? Here are several ways to get a project management mentor, along with the pros and cons of each.
First, the easiest way to get into a mentoring relationship (either as the mentor or the person being mentored – the mentee), is a company scheme.
Formal schemes tend to happen only in the largest organizations as they are most cost-effective to run when you can make connections between large groups of staff. Smaller companies might have a buddying scheme. The only way to find out what options there are available to you within your own company is to ask. Talk to HR or your manager and learn about what opportunities there are in the business.
If there is a scheme you can take part in, I strongly recommend that you join it. You’re likely to get some benefit out of it, and it doesn’t stop you from pursuing any other options for career development (including finding another mentor) at the same time.
The company will normally match you with someone, which means you don’t have to do the hardest part of finding a mentor: the ‘ask’. The mentoring program will also make it easy to take care of the formalities, like putting in place an agreement between the two of you that sets out what you can each expect for your commitment.
You may have little say over whom you are matched with. If the relationship breaks down, you may have to manage the next steps yourself depending on how much support there is for the scheme after the matching process has taken place.
If your company doesn’t have a formal mentoring scheme, or you’ve applied to take part in it and haven’t yet been selected, then you can try other routes.
We had a formal mentoring scheme in one company I worked for. As Elizabeth indicates, it was large organization. Another reason to get into this sort of scheme is the training that these schemes often give to mentors. We had an excellent training program, which meant I felt well-prepared for my my mentoring role. And my own mentor was likewise well-equipped to support me.
Where there is no formally-run mentoring scheme, you may think that you won’t be able to have a mentor from your business. But that isn’t true. You just have to find one.
Think about the managers you respect within the organization. You’re ideally looking for someone who
Spend some time thinking about who would be a good match for you. It needs to be more than one-sided, so think about what you have to offer them as well. You might have several candidates; don’t rush into asking them.
Have an initial, exploratory meeting (or a coffee) with people whom you think might be a suitable fit. Use the time to ask their opinion on a particular challenge and see how they respond. You’re not interviewing them; it’s just a chat. See how the conversation goes and if it’s appropriate to ask if they could take on a more formal mentoring role for you. Then come out and ask them.
Your mentor’s network deserves another mention here. Going into a relationship purely for what you can get out of someone’s connections is definitely the wrong way to start! But if you have two equal candidates and need to make a decision between them, go for the one whose network is likely to be most aligned to your future career goals.
Senior managers are likely to have the skills and experience to support you in your projects (if you target wisely and make a good choice). Many people are flattered to be asked to be a mentor.
They are busy people and are probably approached to mentor staff quite often. They may not have time to dedicate to you. Even if they do make the commitment in the beginning, you may find that being eroded away as time passes.
There’s one way around the problem of finding your chosen mentor has had too many requests and does not have the time they need, to support you. And that’s to think a little sideways. Don’t go for the obvious mentor, with the exact match of experience to the challenges you are facing. Look for someone that has a different background, but some interesting other experiences. Someone who sees the world through a different lens, can create an alternative mentoring experience, that can be equally valuable.
In small teams, where it is little more than you and your manager, there aren’t many senior people to select as a mentor. Therefore, in small companies, going outside your company could be a good choice. You’ll have a wider group of people to choose from.
They won’t be so intimately connected with your work either. That could be an advantage: you don’t want to talk about conflict with your manager with someone who sees her in the daily management meeting.
Where can you look? Try places where suitable mentors would congregate.
Another good starting point is your local PMI Chapter or APM Branch, or an APM GIG (Specific Interest Group). Many Chapters offer mentoring schemes where they pair up new and experienced project managers.
You can find someone who is impartial and knowledgeable in your subject area. These are traits that might not be options if you stick with someone inside a small business.
It’s harder to find someone, make the connection and approach them. This is especially so if you are expecting them to give up their time for free. This is where we start to see more people choosing to invest in a paid relationship with a mentor. They won’t have such a detailed knowledge of your business, which may be a disadvantage if you need specific help with something like office politics, where it would be an advantage to know the people.
We’ll say more about this option later in the article, because Elizabeth is offering just this option at the moment. And it’s one you should be considering carefully.
Don’t ask a complete stranger to be your mentor. Think about what is in it for them (probably not a lot, or at least that might be how it appears to them first of all). Build a relationship first. And then see if you can move it into a mentoring arrangement. You might find an informal, mutually supportive business relationship happens anyway, without you having to force it.
Most of the advice around mentoring is about having someone at a more senior level in the organization as your mentor. That’s fine. And it has many benefits. But sometimes there aren’t enough good senior managers with availability to go around. That’s where you can start exploring other options.
Peer-to-peer mentoring is where you work supportively and in partnership with someone who is at broadly the same level as you. Think of it as going out for coffee with a friend, and having a good chat about all the things that are bothering each of you at work.
You can set this type of relationship up very easily, especially if there are other project managers in your organization. A formal approach is to organize yourselves into pairs or threes across the whole team.
Or, informally, simply pick someone (or several people) you would like to build better working relationships with over time. Ask that person out for coffee (‘out’ could just mean to the office coffee machine) and let the conversation develop naturally. If you think it would be a good idea to formalize your relationship, talk to them, book some meetings, and support each other.
All you have to do is act as a sounding board, be a supportive ear, and offer an opinion if asked!
It can often be easier to find someone of a similar level to you who has the time for lunch once a month, for an informal chat about the problems you’re facing. You can build solid working relationships with other project managers this way.
One of the benefits of mentoring is being able to access the network and connections of the person who mentors you. Peers are unlikely to have a network significantly different to that of your own. While they might be able to introduce you to some interesting people, they probably lack the level of influence that a senior manager could bring to your career development.
And, while they can help you think through your challenges, they are unlikely to have significantly deeper levels of experience than you do.
These disadvantages suggest the possible value of peers with different skill-sets or backgrounds to your own. They won’t be as effective as mentors over specific project management skills. But they may be more helpful in general managerial, leadership or professional matters, and for your wider career development.
Join a group mentoring program. This is where a small group of like-minded individuals come together from different businesses (or within a large organization) and share their experiences. These are typically led by a group leader who facilitates the discussion, and the quality of the experience can depend on the skills of the facilitator.
External group mentoring is one way to get career support outside of your organization.
The main advantage is the breadth of experiences you can get in a well-structured group. More minds will make for better insights into the problems you bring to the group.
Online groups make it easy to join from wherever you are, making it a good option if your local area doesn’t have much potential for face-to-face networking or mentoring.
There’s normally a cost involved in joining a group program – whether local or online. However, you might be able to claim that back as a business expense. And, as I said, the quality of the facilitator can make a huge difference.
Elizabeth is an excellent mentor, as any member of her online Facebook Group can attest. And she is running her own online mentoring scheme, Project Management Rebels.
Have you ever thought about where your career is going as a project manager
Or why some people seem to be on the fast-track while others struggle to advance their careers
Project Management Rebels is a 6-month mentoring and career development membership program. It’s for project managers who don’t work in a textbook world.
As a Project Management Rebel, here’s what you’ll get:
It’s like coffee with a mentor, only more convenient
Check it out and sign-up at http://bit.ly/PMRebels
The May 2019 cohort is focusing on Managing Multiple Projects.
Mentoring is a longer-term commitment… a process that runs over months (and sometimes years) to support your career goals. However, if you have specific issues that you can describe succinctly, the internet is a great place to get support.
Use forums for project managers on LinkedIn or ProjectManagement.com, or join relevant Facebook™ groups. Frame your specific question in a post, and wait for the answers to roll in.
To get the most out of a forum, make sure to participate as much as you ask for help. You might be surprised at how much you already have to share. Look for opportunities to join in with the group and respond to other people’s queries. If the forum moderators and members see you as an active part of the community, there’s more chance that people will see your own requests and queries and respond to them.
Good for quick, simple queries such as finding templates, recommendations for tools or help with particular techniques.
It’s difficult to explain personalities and stakeholder relationships in a forum post, so this kind of support is less useful for the tricky people situations you find yourself in at work. Take the advice given in the spirit that it is meant: while many people on forums are trying to be helpful, evaluate what they say and make your own decisions – you don’t necessarily know how much experience or skill they have on a certain topic.
Sometimes project managers get stuck on finding ‘the’ mentor that will help you achieve your career goals. It doesn’t have to be so binary. You can have several mentors, all of whom offer you and your career something different.
For example, a mentor from within your own organization has something to offer beyond someone who works in a different firm, as they will know the personalities of the people you interact with every day.
In my experience, it’s better to let relationships develop naturally rather than try to force them into a mentoring model. However, it depends on what you want to get out of having a mentor. If you are looking for someone to support you when there are challenges at work and act as a sounding board, you can make that happen without ever having to use the ‘mentor’ word – even if both of you realize that’s what you’re doing.
There are huge benefits to having a mentor. What are you waiting for?
Let us know, in the comments below, and do add any suggestions for other places to find a good project management mentor.
And do take a look at Elizabeth’s Project Management Rebels Mentoring Program.
Elizabeth Harrin is a project manager and the author of several books about project management. She writes an award-winning blog and runs the group mentoring program Project Management Rebels, for people who manage projects in a non-textbook world. Join Project Management Café, her Facebook group, for general support and chat about projects in a supportive environment.
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