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What is a mentor – and how can I make the most of mine?

At work, a mentor is a colleague who’s there to use their experience and skills to guide and develop you. A good mentor helps you understand your interests, develop your skills, and achieve your potential.

If you’re new to the world of work, the chances are you’ll receive some kind of coaching or mentoring. Mentorship can take a number of different forms, and this guide is here to help you understand what they are – and how to make the most of the coaching and mentoring you receive when you begin your first job.

First of all, take a look at this short video, in which students from Florida talk about all the different things a mentor can mean to a young person, and discuss the many benefits of mentoring:

Will I have a mentor?

Most new employees have some kind of coaching and mentoring, particularly if they are new to the world of work. However, the kind of mentoring you receive will depend very much on your employer, and what sort of organisation you work for.

Big employers often have formal mentorship programmes – you might even have several different mentors who all help you in different ways. If you work for a smaller employer – say, a local firm of 20-30 employees – you might find things are a bit less formal. It might be that you have close daily contact with your manager, and that they take on the majority of the coaching and mentoring.

'At work, a good mentor brings out your potential and develops your skills'

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Let’s take a look at the different kinds of coaching and mentoring you might experience.

Case study: IBM

At IBM, young recruits are supported by three mentors – a “coachme”, a task manager, and an early professional manager (“EPM”). All new starters are paired up with these mentors, whether they join the Gap Year programme, begin an apprenticeship, or come on board as a graduate.

“Coachme”: Showing you the ropes

A “coachme” is an approachable, friendly colleague who’s there to provide practical, everyday coaching to help you navigate your way around as you settle into the team. They'll show you the ropes and answer any practical questions you might have from day to day.

This will be someone a class or two ahead of you who has experienced exactly what you’re going through right now. In some organisations, you might hear coaches like these referred to as "buddies".

Task managers: Overseeing your daily work

Your task manager sets and manages the daily tasks and projects that you work on. They may carry out some of your training and help you learn and improve in the “technical” aspects of your job. This means they may help you acquire and improve the specialist skills you need to do your job. In many organisations, a task manager is known as a “line manager”.

You will probably meet your task manager for one-on-one meetings to review your progress on tasks and discuss areas for improvement. They may also help you develop soft skills such as confidence and attitude, helping you grow into your role.

Early professional manager: Your senior mentor

It’s not uncommon for bigger companies like IBM to pair new staff members with people at a much higher level within the company. At IBM, this senior mentor is called an “early professional manager”, or “EPM”.

Your EPM is there to learn about your aspirations and interests and help you decide on your longer-term career path by working with you to draw up a personal development plan.

Your EPM will also put you in touch with different people across the IBM team who can help you explore your interests and build up specialist skills and experience. This way, you’ll develop a “network” of colleagues, which can help you create great opportunities in the future.

You can learn lots more about IBM and the amazing opportunities available to school and college leavers on their profile.

How can I make the most of my mentor?

While (almost) everyone familiarises themselves with the practicalities of starting a new job – such as what time to arrive and what to wear – it’s easy to think that you’ve got the job and that’s that.

Getting your first job may be the end of one journey – but it’s also the first step on a new one. And while coaching and mentoring will help you find your way on your career journey, you’ll get the most out of it if you have some idea where you’re going.

One of the ways in which work differs from school is that you’re directly responsible for your own destiny. If you seize every opportunity, you’ll find your career much more fulfilling than if you simply go with the flow.

With that in mind, here are some of the ways you can make the most of your mentor:

  • Be proactive: If you don’t find out in your first week, use the first 1-2-1 meeting with your boss to ask about professional development.
  • Find out what your mentors are for: If you have more than one kind of mentor, find out what each one is for – remember the different types of mentors we talked about earlier?
  • Prepare for your mentor meeting: If you have a mentor meeting, think about what you want to get out of it. You will be asked lots of questions and “I dunno” isn’t going to cut it!
  • Make a good impression: Act professionally and respectfully when you meet your mentor. Make sure you have a pen and paper handy to make notes during your meeting.

Some tips on meeting your mentor

As we’ve just mentioned, it’s up to you to take charge of your mentoring relationships in order to get all the benefits of mentoring. If you have a senior mentor, the onus may well be on you to arrange your initial meeting and ensure you meet regularly afterwards. This might sound daunting, but all it boils down to is a bit of common sense and initiative:

  • As soon as you find out who your mentor is, introduce yourself by email and propose a meeting. They will probably be very busy, so if you don’t hear back after a few days, send a reminder. If you don’t hear from them at all, talk to your line manager.
  • If your mentor asks you to arrange the next meeting, do it straight away. You’ll probably be expected to do this in an online calendar system.
  • If you’re not sure what to do, ask your boss or a colleague. No one expects you to know everything straight away, so take advantage of your first few weeks to ask all the basic questions. If you leave it much longer, you’ll find it gets harder and harder to do anything about it – making it embarrassing when your boss finds out.
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