Why Finding a Mentor Is Hard (and What to Do about It)

Elizabeth Harrin | January 22, 2019

Finding a Mentor
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Mentoring is known to have positive effects on career paths, both for new entrants to a role and for more experienced personnel. In a study by Gartner, over 5 years at Sun Microsystems, the results were startling. The analysis showed that 25 percent of people in the mentoring scheme had a salary grade change, compared to only 5 percent of people who weren’t in the scheme. Retention rates for staff were better too.

However, I work with a number of project managers in a mentoring capacity, and I hear the same thing over and over again: “There aren’t any managers in my business who can mentor me.”

If you have the chance to work with a mentor, take it.

Unfortunately for many, it seems like there are fewer formal mentoring schemes being offered today—that Gartner study dates from 2006—and fewer opportunities for corporate-led mentoring at work.

This is happening for three main reasons:

  1. Capable managers are too busy. People have more and more to do at work and less time for the ‘nice to have’ extras like supporting their colleagues. (This is bizarre when you think about it, but true.)
  2. There aren’t any capable managers. The individual is the only person in a project management role, and no one else has the skills to provide relevant support and mentorship.
  3. It’s too hard to find a capable manager. Budget cuts have meant that there are fewer formal corporate mentoring schemes. Where you used to be able to find these in big and small companies, they are now offered less often, for a shorter period of time, or with fewer mentors so it’s a struggle to join the scheme.

All this adds up to making project management an even lonelier role than it needs to be! As mentoring has great career benefits, how can you fill the gap left by the lack of a formal scheme?

Finding a Mentor

If your company isn’t going to help you find a mentor, what are your options? Here are some suggestions.

Look Outside Your Company

Professional bodies are a great place to start. Pick one aimed at project management, like PMI, or one aligned with your industry—IT, engineering, education, etc.

All these groups have face-to-face meetings so you may want to narrow your search down to groups that have a physical presence not too far from you. Then, you can attend the meetups. A cost is normally involved with joining a professional body, but many have discounted or student rates. Once you’re in, you’ll get access to their knowledge base and (usually) free entry to monthly evening meetings, breakfast seminars, and whatever else is on their program of activities.

At these events, you can chat with others in a similar situation to you. You might even make a connection that turns into a long-term business relationship. In addition, many PMI chapters actively promote their initiatives to match new project managers with experienced professionals so you might discover a mentoring scheme within the group.

Go Online

If you can’t meet up in person, make use of the many project management discussion groups, forums, and communities online. Check out groups on LinkedIn, Facebook and ProjectManagement.com. Sit in on webinars to learn new skills and hear from experts.

Mentor Yourself

You’re committed to developing your own career, right? Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this article. So, what is stopping you from designing a mentoring plan for yourself? A wealth of information is available out there, largely for free. Between YouTube, online tutorials, blogs, magazines, books, professional bodies, and your existing communities, you can learn a lot yourself. Some things you need to learn from experience, but you can pick up many, many tips from people willing to share.

For example, our eBook, How to Manage Chaos, is packed with hard-won expert tips for getting the job done.

Taking responsibility for your own career like this might not seem as much fun as coffee and chat once a month with a senior manager in your own company, but you can learn a lot.

Mentor Others

Offer your services as a mentor. You can still learn a lot from working with other people. You are never “too junior” to be a mentor; if there is someone in the office who needs support with a skill you have, then you can support them. That’s mentoring.

If your team gets a new starter, offer to mentor them through their first few weeks. You know more than you think, and you have to more to offer than you probably expect.

Being a mentor has career benefits, too. Mentors in the Sun study were promoted six times more often than non-mentors.

Also, check out Fundera’s post on How to Find the Perfect Mentor in 8 Easy Steps.

Going Beyond Learning

The other value point of having a mentor is that they look out for you in the company. A good mentor can make introductions for you, open doors, talk knowledgeably about office politics and the best way to get things done, and generally be supportive of your career within the company.

No amount of online reading or community discussion groups is going to do that.

To get this benefit, you need to build in some networking time. Make a plan to network internally within your organization. You can still meet people and build relationships that will ultimately support your career aspirations without those people being formally in a mentor role for you.

You never know, networking with your manager’s peers may help you find a mentor; it never hurts to ask.

You can also network with people in similar roles to you within your own organization. What’s stopping you setting up an email list of people doing project management roles within the business, and inviting them all to a one-hour catch up on a monthly basis? Could you create your own project management community in the company? Start with a single lunch-and-learn session where you share your lessons from a recent project and see where it goes from there.

If you are feeling unsupported in your role, chances are other people are too. You can be the person that brings the community together within your business.

Think about what you want to get out of mentoring and see how you can meet that need without a formal mentoring scheme at work. You might find it easier than you expected to develop your career in a positive way, and you’ll learn a lot on the journey.

Elizabeth Harrin is a project manager, author of several books, and a mentor. Find her online at her blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management

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