Meet your mentor: Your career’s secret weapon

Whether it’s more money, more balance, or a total change of direction, big work-related decisions can be challenging. The key to getting what you want, says Katie Mulloy, is meeting your mentor. Here’s how.

It is perhaps the only modern relationship for which there is no app. Unless there’s a Tinder for career progression that I’ve missed. So how do you meet a mentor? Specifically, how do you meet a mentor when you already have a successful career, more than a smidgen of self-respect and don’t want to feel like a child in a playground asking someone to be your friend?

For me, it started, as many of the best things do, over a glass of champagne. Liz Taylor (her real name, yes) had actually wanted to meet me. I was the new editor of a regional magazine and Liz, never one to miss a networking opportunity (one of many traits I’ve since tried to pick up), invited me to lunch. We got on and kept in touch. When I left my job to return to freelancing she became a client for a while and, through that relationship, has unexpectedly become my mentor.

mentoring
Illustration: Eve Lloyd Knight

I say unexpectedly because, pre-Liz, I never considered myself in the market for a mentor. Pushing 40, a former award-winning editor and well-respected writer, I think it would be fair to call my career successful. I’d had supportive and inspiring bosses throughout my working life, but never an established mentor.

In case you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’ve had a mentor!’ let me clarify. ‘It is someone who has experience and skills in an area where they can help you progress, and is willing to give up time to do that,’ explains Sally Bailey, former CEO of clothing brand White Stuff and now chair of Pilotlight, a charity connecting business and charity leaders for mentoring programmes.

Women are less likely than men to have mentors. In a recent survey by global careers consultancy DDI, two thirds of women – who were, on average, 48 years old and at mid- or senior levels of management – said they’d never had a formal mentor. In fact, research suggests the older we are, the less likely we are to reach out for help from mentors.

And yet the value of having a mentor has been shown time and time again. Women with mentors are more likely to ask for pay rises and better assignments, according to one Harvard Business Review study; they’re happier at work. And the women who report having the strongest mentoring relationships? They’re the ones already in the boardroom. It’s not that we don’t realise mentoring is good for our careers, it’s just that we don’t do much about it. Or at least I didn’t until I met Liz.

I liked her instantly. An events planner and entrepreneur with 30-plus years of experience of running her own company, Taylor Lynn Corporation, she’s turned over millions and bucked recessions. She is dynamic and positive and, buried beneath her brusque honesty, kind-hearted.

Perhaps we connected because, like Liz, I’m strong-willed and passionate about my career. Yet behind the shiny CV credentials, I have a chronic but well-disguised confidence issue, a young family to juggle, and a lot of figuring out to do in terms of how to create a career that’s sustainable and fulfilling. In hindsight I should have been carting around ‘In need of a mentor’ on a sandwich board.

Katie and Liz
Katie Mulloy with her mentor Liz Taylor. ‘She’s top of my contacts list,’ says Liz. Image: Tom Pitfield

‘Those issues are exactly why finding a mentor later in your career when you’re already well up the ladder can be incredibly powerful,’ confirms Liz Dimmock, founder and CEO of Moving Ahead, which manages the world’s largest cross-company mentoring programme on behalf of the 30% Club, a campaign group to increase gender diversity in the boardroom. ‘In general, women don’t have as linear a career trajectory as men. They may have taken career breaks or side steps because of family and having different priorities at certain times. This means they can get to a point where they’re re-evaluating what they want from their career.’ Sally Bailey agrees: ‘Earlier in your career it’s all about progressing. But later on, you have the space to think, “Do I really want this? Does this make me happy?”’

That’s certainly where I am. It’s not just a forced re-evaluation now that I’m a mother and no longer want to work the insane hours I used to thrive on. It’s the acknowledgement that I have at least another 25 years of working life ahead and I want to do something that works for me.

Like many people, I have an idea of what that might be – I just don’t know how to get there. Or if I can get there. Step in Liz, with her laser-like focus, steely confidence and entrepreneurial flair. We don’t have a formalised schedule of meetings, but we speak regularly and she’s top of my contacts list when I need career advice. She has not only created opportunities for me, making introductions to potential new clients (alongside writing, I’m developing a branding, social media and PR agency), she’s helped me develop the entrepreneurial nous and self-promotional skills that I lack.

Diane Aplin, 54, from Wrexham, was at a similar crossroads when she met her mentor Rachel Clacher, CEO and founder of telephone answering service Moneypenny, at their children’s school. Diane was a solicitor working in litigation in Manchester when she met Rachel at a parent-teacher evening. ‘We got talking and I really respected her opinions. We were friendly for a while, then I asked if she’d spend some time with me, just to chew things over. I wanted someone I could bounce my thoughts off and help me unpick those gut feelings.’

Diane’s gut feelings were telling her that her successful law career was not going to make her happy for the next 20 years. ‘I’d gone into law to give a voice to people less fortunate but that wasn’t what I was doing. I was disillusioned. Talking to Rachel helped me realise that I am driven by my values and they have to be at the centre of what I do if I’m going to be fulfilled.’

Diane assumed that this would mean a segue into a different kind of law, but a year later when Rachel had the idea of launching We Mind The Gap, which provides paid traineeships and mentoring for young women, she asked Diane to come on board. Diane now leads the operation as chief engagement officer.

Rachel is the kind of female leader who mentors by nature. ‘It’s wanting to encourage good things to happen for other people,’ she says. That doesn’t mean she’s simply a supportive cheerleader. ‘As a mentor you’re being asked for your critical voice, not your friendship. They want your honest opinion and feedback.’ Rachel believes that this process is easier with older mentees. ‘There’s that saying, “The more I know, the more I know I know nothing.” I think you’re more open to feedback as you get older, more willing to acknowledge there are different ways of approaching things.’

Diane and Rachel
Diane Aplin, left, wIth mentor Rachel Clacher: ‘I wanted someone I could bounce my thoughts off’

Despite a sense of self-assurance that can come with age, research suggests that women are often less confident in their abilities at work compared to men, and are far more likely to be perfectionists. ‘Mentoring can help women switch to a “growth mindset”: the idea that as long as you’re learning, you’re growing. A mentor helps you weather setbacks. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone fails. You need someone saying, “Here’s what you learned, here’s how it will help you move forward,”’ says Liz Dimmock.

I know what it is to be ruled by perfectionism. Mine runs alongside – or is perhaps a symptom of – impostor syndrome. Coined in the 1970s and a discussion point ever since, impostor syndrome is the belief that we’re not really good enough and will be ‘discovered’ at any moment. It disproportionately affects women and can worsen the older, and seemingly more successful, we become.

‘Your biggest problem is under-confidence,’ Liz Taylor tells me when I ask her what it’s like to mentor someone later in their career. ‘That’s a more complicated issue when you’re older. With younger mentees it can be born out of inexperience. But you simply don’t realise your own value. Because of that, when you’re challenged you can become defensive. You take things as criticism when they’re not. You have to learn to catch that behaviour.’

It’s not always easy to hear feedback like that; ours isn’t a relationship without a little friction. I don’t necessarily agree with everything Liz says – I don’t ingest it indiscriminately the way I might have done when I was younger – but I contemplate it. And watching Liz in action is invaluable. She never dwells on an error. She makes things happen for herself. She is impressively unafraid of risk. Being around her makes me braver, even if it’s in minor ways: pitching for work, approaching potential clients, articulating what I can offer.

‘Meeting my mentor inspired me to start my company,’ says Joanne Graham, 56, now a business development coach in Edinburgh. ‘I was an HR director and met Kate, an executive coach, when I arranged a session for my staff. I was in a toxic environment with a boss who didn’t like me. Kate invited me for a coffee to talk about it and the relationship grew from there. She never tried to turn me into a client – it was very much a mentor-mentee relationship.

‘We met every few months for a year. She recommended books and encouraged me to formulate a plan. It gave me the headspace to think about the sort of business I wanted to set up. I had no idea if I could monetise it, but Kate made me realise I could, and introduced me to people who are now, a couple of years later, regular clients. I’m running my own consultancy, earning more, and enjoying a far better work-life balance.’

Sometimes having a mentor is simply about stepping off the treadmill and taking the opportunity to reflect honestly on what you want. ‘Mentoring gives women a safe space in which to declare their ambition. We can be embarrassed about expressing our true desires,’ says Liz Dimmock. ‘But being with a mentor, whose role is to be non-judgmental and supportive, you’re free to share those ambitions, you can explore those questions: what are you passionate about? What really matters to you and what is getting in your way?’

How to meet (and keep) your mentor

Cast your net

While you shouldn’t be afraid of cold-calling a potential mentor, the most obvious way is to meet someone through your own networks. Join local groups or organisations related to your field or network online; plenty of people find mentors through social media. There are a number of structured mentoring programmes in industries from TV production (wftv.org.uk) to politics (fabianwomen.org.uk/mentoring/). Search online to see if your industry has one, too.

Plan your approach

Opening with ‘Will you be my mentor?’ might be a little strong but asking for an hour of someone’s time is rarely going to be met with a negative response. Make it easy to meet. They’re giving up their time, so fit your schedule around them. If you get on and there’s a chance to keep meeting, then do so. Otherwise take what you can from your meeting and keep looking.

Be specific about what you need

Think about the skills you want to develop and why you’ve approached this particular person. Referencing their experience or a project they’ve worked on gives them an idea of how they may be able to help you. But don’t fall into the trap of finding another you! You want someone who brings a different perspective and alternative strengths.

Remember that it’s a reciprocal relationship

It’s about give and take; there’s nothing worse than a mentee who doesn’t listen to advice but keeps demanding their mentor’s time. You need to show your mentor that their help is making a difference to you. Equally, don’t feel like a charity case. Mentors are mentors for a reason; they enjoy helping people and it can be a transformative relationship for them too.