Mentoring needn’t feel like a minefield. Here’s how to identify your needs and target the right person for the right reasons.

By Debra Walton (Chief Content Officer, Thomson Reuters)

When I speak at leadership forums, one of the things that strikes me is how many questions there are about mentoring. It’s a major topic of conversation.

In spite of the many books, blogs, and tips on mentoring, many people are concerned about potential missteps and want to know more about the optimal approach. Frequently I’m asked about the differences between a mentor and a sponsor.

I’ve had a number of mentors over the course of my life. The first and perhaps most important one was my mother, though she wouldn’t have seen herself that way. I grew up in a small town, and what other people thought about what you said and did was very important. This wasn’t about shallow, superficial stuff, but about the things upon which reputations were built.

For example, my mother never left the house without being impeccably dressed, because that told the world she cared about herself and how others perceived her. She was a “good neighbor,” always available to offer a helping hand to others, and her word was her bond.

I like to think she instilled those traits in me, and that they have become what I now appreciate as the foundation of my own personal brand.

Many Kinds of Mentor

When talking about mentors, it’s important to distinguish between those you choose for a specific reason and those who are essentially “life” advisors. I like to say that there are “mentors for a reason, mentors for a season, and mentors for life.”  We all should have a number of them in each category at any one time.

Sometimes a person may not even know they’re acting as a mentor. For example, as I try to continually learn and hone my skills around content technology to keep up with all the work on big data we’re doing at Thomson Reuters, I routinely seek out the advice of a few trusted colleagues who are experts in this field.

Often they are much younger than me and with less business experience – but they offer me an invaluable opportunity to learn, and to ask what sometimes feel to me like “silly questions,” helping me advance my knowledge in an area that’s outside my normal orbit. These are invaluable “mentors for a reason.”

Coaches, Mentors and Sponsors

Sponsors are different from mentors and coaches. Coaches talk at you. They’re hired for a specific reason, and will provide you with certain agreed-upon information or guidance.

Mentors talk with you. Your relationship with them is more personal and fluid, and there’s a good chance a mentor will be a colleague at your company, probably somebody higher up the ladder.

Finally, a sponsor will talk about you. They are your PR people, the ones touting your strengths when a new opportunity presents itself. They create buzz about your brand, and hopefully turn the right heads at the right time. Think of a sponsor as someone who is talking about you when you are not in the room.

Paying it Forward

I’ve been fortunate to have had a number of mentors and sponsors over the course of my career, and I try to give back by serving in those roles for others. I believe in “paying it forward,” and as such am always glad to assist those who seek me out.

Being helpful – to individuals and to the world at large – is part of my brand. As a result, I’ve gained some influence in my company and in my community.

I try to be a helpful mentor to others. It is difficult to take on more than a few mentees on a formal basis at any given time, but whenever my schedule permits I try to be available for “career conversations” with others.

I make it clear to the people I help that they need to be in charge of the logistical side – scheduling meetings, sending me a note a few days ahead of time with guidelines or an agenda for our discussion, and telling me what they hope to get out of it. I need to be sure the process is beneficial for the mentee and a valuable use of my time.

Keeping in Contact

I’d also like to give some advice to those who have mentors and sponsors: Stay in touch with them even after you’ve moved on. I notice how some people whom I’ve helped in the past don’t reach out to me after our relationship has served its purpose.

It’s possible some of them worry about bothering me, though that’s almost never the case. Everybody likes to feel appreciated, and I’m more likely to want to help somebody who has made an effort to maintain contact, even if it’s just with a holiday card or an occasional e-mail to touch base.

If that sounds like I’m talking about networking, I am. Networking and mentoring are inextricably linked. Both require a proactive attitude and ongoing attention, like a plant that needs water and sunlight. Those who work hard to keep that plant nurtured will find their careers thriving as a result.

Who do you turn to for advice in business?

Photo credit: graja via Shutterstock.