Photo by Govindanmarudhai/Getty Images.
I’ve never had a “mentor,” no well-connected older colleague I go to for career advice and moral support. I don’t have regular check-ins involving my professional life with anyone other than my manager, and I’m betting that’s true for lots of people.
Sure, a formal mentoring relationship might be great. The idea of having a go-to industry leader to help me steer my career whenever I need advice sounds really appealing. I’ve just never locked one down because if we’re being honest here, it’s hard to do! Getting somebody to invest themselves indefinitely in your career success, like an unpaid coach, is more than many people can reasonably pull off.
So if you’re like me and are fine foregoing mentorship, here’s what you can do instead and end up no worse for the wear.
Stalk People You Admire Online
This one’s easy. You can start by diving down the rabbit holes Twitter and LinkedIn present you with each time you hit the “follow” or “connect” buttons—they’ll recommend other, similar people you might be interested in. But internet stalking is a multi-pronged affair.
On one hand you should probably follow leaders you’ll never hope to chat with directly, just to keep tabs on what they’re thinking about and sharing. And on the other, you should follow your peers who work in similar jobs or at similar companies. It’s called “benchmarking.” Mentors are typically pretty good at letting you know where you stand relative to the competition—what’s a stretch position for you, what you’re overqualified for, which projects you should try getting assigned.
But you can gather the same sort of intel from social media: What sorts of things are people at the same level as you posting, where, and how often? Who are they following and talking to? Pay attention over time, and you’ll gradually get a sense of your own strengths and weaknesses professionally.
Look For Ways To Take On “Stretch” Work
A mentor’s main job is helping you find ways to advance your career, but as one Fast Company contributor pointed out, you may be able to do a lot of that yourself. The secret to getting more responsibilities—and eventually positioning yourself for a promotion—isn’t a secret at all: You have to nail everything in your job description and then pick up a few tasks that go beyond it. After all, few mentors can actually set you up with that killer project that’s going to make you shine—usually only your boss can. Here are a few ways to get yourself ready for it all on your own.
Stop Going To Pointless Networking Events
You might think that without a designated mentor you’d be even more hard up to find influential people in your space. But that doesn’t mean you should hit the networking circuit with abandon. Generic networking events tend to under-deliver, so feel free to be selective. Only check out networking opportunities where you’re likely to find these kinds of people:
- People who currently work in a job you want
- People who work directly with the people who work in a job you want
- People who have a unique point of view on an industry you’re trying to advance in
If you can’t make first- or second-degree connections there, or hear something really interesting about your field that might directly change your career strategy, don’t go.
Invite Four People To Coffee Every Year
It doesn’t need to be an actual coffee. Tea is fine. So is a beer. So is a 20-minute informal phone call with no beverages involved whatsoever. The point is to have a strictly informational chat with somebody you admire in your field. What does “informational” mean? That you don’t have any particular endgame or “ask” in mind—you just want to hear more about what they do.
Years ago when I’d just started freelance writing, a journalist friend of mine invited me to tag along to his company’s holiday party in Washington, D.C. I could count on one hand my grand total of published bylines at the time, but I’d just worked with an editor that he’d connected me with. So I grabbed a Megabus ticket and showed up, schmoozed with the editor , and went on work to with him again. This counts as a “coffee meeting”—and yes, it sometimes involves being a bit of a groupie (then again, being somebody’s mentee is the ultimate groupie move), but who cares?
The main thing is to make a habit out of this. Reaching out to someone new roughly once a quarter should be all that it takes (you’re taking a “less is more” approach to networking, remember?).
Get In On What The Higher-Ups Are Saying
There are lots of ways to do this. Maybe you ask your boss if she wouldn’t mind sharing her notes from her meeting with the department heads. Or perhaps instead you just seize on your next chance to chat up the exec you find yourself riding the elevator with. Most of these opportunities are small and hard to plan for, but that’s precisely why so many people pass them up. You shouldn’t.
Early on in your career, it’s easy to feel insulated from the discussions going on at the top. So when in doubt, keep this line on standby for your next one-on-one with your boss: “Since my day-to-day doesn’t really touch on this, how’s the company doing in general? Anything on the broader business front that I should know about?”
Realize All The Informal Mentors You Already Have
Anyone who’s ever written a job recommendation for you, championed or praised your work (social media shoutouts count), or even just given you one-off advice that you’ve really valued—for all practical purposes, they’re your mentors. All it takes is for somebody to go out of their way for you once to make it totally fine for you to reach out for their opinion again later. (They can always ignore you or decline, but most probably won’t.)
Another hidden career resource that few people tap enough are their own friends. As Fast Company contributor Reva Seth wrote year, there’s still a huge taboo around talking compensation, which she points out plays right into employers’ hands; knowledge is negotiating power.
But it goes beyond compensation. Anytime your friend texts you, stressed out about a tense interaction with his boss and asks for your take, guess what? You’re mentoring! And it’s vice versa whenever you’re bouncing your own workplace problems off your friends. Commiseration itself is valuable (one career-change company built a whole business out of what started as informal, entry-level misery-fests), but you’re also learning from each other—pooling your workplace experiences and expanding your points of reference so you can decide how best to act.
Plenty of successful careers are made without mentors, but none are made in a vacuum.
Rich Bellis was previously the Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.