In the early years of my career, I was determined, passionate, and excited for the future’s possibilities. Yet I was also young, inexperienced, and on occasion lacking confidence. While it was clear I had a natural ability for certain things, other skills didn’t come as easily. In some areas, I stayed in my comfort zone (for example, I avoid public speaking whenever possible), but in others, I took full advantage of employee development opportunities. This has included skill-based, management and leadership training, as well as various forms of mentoring and coaching.

UNOFFICIAL VS. OFFICIAL

I connected with several of my mentors through a formal company mentorship program with a well-defined relationship structure and established boundaries and expectations. These mentor relationships were valuable, offering insight into activities that would help me develop key skills and capabilities to support my career track.

Yet when I look back to defining experiences and relationships that have influenced my career, it’s clear that I’ve developed valuable mentor relationships through informal professional relationships as well as the formal programs. As a self-motivated learner, I naturally gravitated towards professional role models, and I was inquisitive. I shared my ideas and asked for advice or feedback on my work.

The informal mentoring interactions were rarely one-off instances, but long-term relationships that I developed and cultivated. In terms of growth and value, I experienced similar—and sometimes greater—value from them than the formal mentorships. With a formal mentorship, I focused on development areas that I had identified and I was committed to them. However, with informal professional relationships, I shared what I was working on or through, gleaning insights and advice that was specific to my actual work experiences at that time. These relationships felt closer, with both parties equally invested, and because of this dynamic I was more open. My mentors listened to my “crazy” ideas and gave me the confidence to relabel them as bold and move from contemplation to action. My mentors offered words of wisdom when I was working through a big challenge and helped me initiate big career moves.

COACH VS. MENTOR

When I moved into an executive role, I had the opportunity to start working with an executive business coach. This relationship proved more valuable than I expected. In some ways, my relationship with my business coach is similar to the relationships I’ve had with previous professional mentors, yet it is impressively different (beyond the obvious difference of paying for the time). I entered business coaching as a skeptic, expecting a personal, one-on-one version of some time management or leadership training I’d already experienced. I was wrong!

When meeting with my coach, I typically discuss something I’m struggling with (i.e., time management or my tendency to take on more than I should) or a big challenge I’m working through (i.e., company restructure) and I’m always surprised by the direction of our conversations. My coach doesn’t just listen and offer straightforward advice and solutions, she really walks me through a series of thought-provoking questions and scenarios, always leading me in unexpected directions. The outcomes are never what I expect. The process leads to many ah-ha moments and has helped me understand myself, my work style, and how to get out of my head and trust my instincts and intuition better. It feels more like business therapy!

MANAGERS CAN BE GREAT COACHES

Long before I started working with a professional coach, I was fortunate enough to work under exceptional leaders—all sharing coach-like characteristics. A leader is invested in your success and can guide you on the path to achieve it. They know you well and have an ability to help you develop so that you can fulfill new roles. They’re able to clearly see your strengths, weaknesses, potential, and the growth you need to achieve your potential. For me, to be managed by someone like this feels like a positive force in my professional life—someone is rooting for me while being pragmatic and effective, helping me work through issues (as opposed to telling me what to do), guiding me in new work roles, and ultimately supporting me in maximizing my potential.

GETTING STARTED

When evaluating your current professional needs, I suggest that you start by assessing yourself and defining your intentions. Here are some useful questions:

Do you want to build skills and capabilities?
Do you want to develop soft skills and qualities that would help your growth in your role or improve your people management or leadership abilities?
Do you need guidance and management through challenging situations or complex issues?
Do you need a sounding board?
How much time and money are you prepared to invest?

Once you’ve defined your needs, it will be easier to identify the type of guidance that will benefit you most:

Unofficial (informal) mentor: This person can be a great sounding board, someone who can provide advice and guidance, share relevant experiences, and introduce you to other people who could be great resources for you.
Professional (formal) mentor: An organized program with a structure helps keep you focused on the key developmental areas you’ve defined. This is tremendously helpful if you’re not sure which questions to ask or how to maximize the benefit from a mentorship.
Business coach: You will focus on larger and more complex issues and topics, benefit from a great sounding board, and you’ll receive very honest feedback. A good coach will identify things you may not see and push you in unexpected ways. Enter with an open mind!

In the end, my advice to anyone considering a mentor or coach:

Invest the time to prepare your self-assessment. These relationships are most valuable when you are aware of your strengths, weaknesses, and goals.
Find the right mentor or coach. If you find yourself working with someone who’s not the right fit, don’t be discouraged, learn from it, and keep looking.
Enter the relationship with an open mind and a commitment to learn and grow.

If a mentor/coach relationship is new to you, I think you’ll find these experiences can have a tremendously positive impact on your professional life and, like me, you may be surprised by the intangible benefits.

MOVING FROM MENTEE TO MENTOR

Are you a mentor or interested in becoming one? If you’re not sure, don’t dismiss the idea. This relationship can benefit your company, help build the next generation of great employees, and is highly rewarding.