It can be life-changing when a mentor empowers you to make moves you wouldn’t make on your own, says NJ Falk. A mentor can help you push boundaries, “give context, structure, and scaffolding,” and provide “validation to help support your ability to take charge,” she says.
This counsel has been a theme in Falk’s career. As a business advisor, an entrepreneur, a contributor to Forbes, and a cofounder of The Forward Female, a new career development center that offers mentorship matchmaking and advice sessions, Falk has doled out countless hours of career and lifestyle advice to women. She’s eager to talk to others about what has worked for her and what has not, because she recognizes the importance mentors have played in her own career. “Their advice has often impacted my decision-making,” she says. “I will mentally reference what not to do and what to do when I am confronted with complex decisions and situations.”
At the core of the relationship lies this: A successful mentorship requires a proactive and thoughtful mentee. As Falk outlines for us, it’s essential to create guidelines, set expectations, and respect the time of the person giving you guidance. This, she says, will help you build career bridges, remove roadblocks, and grow from the advice you receive.
A Q&A with NJ Falk
Why is mentorship important?
Mentorship helps build future leaders by drawing on the personal perspective of current leaders who have the benefit of experience. Mentorship provides the added elements of trust, encouragement, and positivity in terms of both emotion and intent that may not exist in the workplace or in an industry at large. It can help people—women, in particular—find their true, authentic voice.
One of the greatest benefits of mentorship is the opportunity it offers the mentee to benefit from the successes and failures of someone who has taken the journey and learned the routes, the best direct paths, the potential roadblocks, and the critical shortcuts. A mentor can share their road map. A mentor also offers ongoing, earnest, constructive feedback and specific advice from the perspective of someone who has been in your shoes. It is someone in your corner who is operating in a neutral zone, conveying information that is balanced, honest, and in your own best interest.
What are the most important things to request of a mentor?
When you are beginning a mentor relationship, come with clarity in terms of the issues you are dealing with, and be precise about the results you want. If you don’t know what you want, it’s hard to find ways to get to the answers or help. When you come prepared to show clarity, commitment, and core competencies, it helps your mentor understand your position and start to construct the best building blocks for you. It’s also very important to be honest.
At the start of the mentorship, the most critical things to ask your mentor are:
•Do you have the time to work with me on an ongoing (weekly or monthly) basis? This will determine if your expectations and needs are in alignment with what the mentor can offer.
•Is my set of goals realistic for me to achieve in the designated period of time?
•What are the benchmarks to set to the timeline to achieve my goals?
•Is there a business plan or blueprint you suggest that can help me reach these goals?
•What is the best way and time for us to communicate?
•What do you expect of me during the process?
Clear and upfront communication of these elements will help ensure a successful relationship. With many of my mentees, we spend a lot of time talking before we get to an action plan and move toward materializing real results. It takes time and patience to see results. The answers are not always obvious. It’s an evolving process.
As the mentee, what should you deliver in return?
Respect and responsibility are required on the part of the mentee. Be respectful of time, attention, and connections and always be an active participant who’s accountable for your actions and responsible for your own work.
A mentor is not someone who makes decisions for you or gets you a job or promotion. The power of your interpersonal relationships plus your mentor’s time, advice, and counsel will enable you to do that on your own. The currency will be your decisions, along with the strategic moves that prove your work together has been of value.
It is critical to ask questions, discuss issues (good and bad), and most importantly, continue to progress so you keep moving forward. If someone is offering you their time and strategy, take full advantage of that and work to evolve rather than remaining stagnant and wallowing in career problems or issues.
What are some best practices for making mentorship meetings most effective?
Your mentor is likely very busy, so take on the responsibility of reaching out on a regular basis rather than waiting for a response. Schedule time to meet in advance. When possible, send written updates for them to review on their own time before your meeting. And prompt your mentor when necessary. You will learn the art of getting the focused attention to get your needs met. That’s how you get results. We actually do that at The Forward Female with regular check-ins. The people both giving and receiving need the structure for the relationship to be successful.
How can you monitor success while working with a mentor?
Success is different for everyone, but having specific goals and visions of personal success, along with timelines, is how this can be monitored.
Recognize achievements along the way—everything doesn’t have to be a major goal. It’s vital to enjoy small successes that happen in your business and personal life and appreciate the teams you work with. Share good news on a regular basis. It’s most likely the team that helped to get you and your team there.
Pacing is key. It is beneficial to break down goals on a quarterly basis. I usually assign myself no more than three major goals for each quarter of the year. If you try to take on too much at one time, it can be hard to achieve what you want.
You’ve mentioned that you have golden rules of mentorship. What are those for the mentee?
1.Start by building a foundation and cultivating a relationship.
2.Show your seriousness in your desire to get ahead.
3.Have a clear goal or direction.
4.Respect your mentor’s time, and use it wisely.
5.Be pointed in your needs for advice.
6.Thoughtfully listen to their perspective and point of view.
7.Give feedback on outcomes and take assignments and advice seriously.
8.Be prepared to pivot, pivot, pivot. Not everything stays on the actual specific plan.
How and where can you seek out a mentor?
Your mentor could be right in front of you and you might not realize it. It can be someone in your network. A client or contact at a company you do business with. A friend of the family. There are also companies to reach out to, like The Forward Female, who mentor-match. So you can find a mentor in various places.
I discovered when I started contributing to Forbes that women from many diverse fields started reaching out to me asking for advice. As a result, we began to have an ongoing dialogue about career paths and lifestyle decisions that, for some, evolved into full mentor relationships in which I could add value and offer the guidance to make a real difference in the trajectory of their careers and lives.
What is the best scenario for finding a mentor outside of your network?
Get out and network. Exponentially the more people you know or meet or encounter in your field, the greater your chances for connecting to people who can finally support you in finding that expert and the ideal person who is the best match for you.
At The Forward Female, we host all kinds of events in specific fields so members can make the connections they need. Many of the women I’ve mentored over the years are people I’ve met at industry-related events. That has led to striking up meaningful relationships for both of us. The best part is I also get to learn new things in my mentorship role.
How you showcase yourself while you ask questions and engage is important: Be bold enough to engage in a dialogue. That will ultimately start the process. Sometimes you have to move out of your comfort zone, stand up, stand out, and express yourself.
NJ Falk is a business advisor, an entrepreneur, and a longtime career mentor. (She refers to herself as a “mentorpreneur.”) She’s a contributor to ForbesWomen, where she writes about career and lifestyle advice. She is also the founder of The Falk Fund, which supports emerging female-founded businesses, the founder of the advertising and branding agency UXB, and a managing partner of Athletic Propulsion Labs. She most recently cofounded The Forward Female, a networking and coworking space and career development center that offers its members tailored career advice and guidance. (The Forward Female will be offering virtual business workshops to help entrepreneurs during the current coronavirus pandemic. More details can be found here.)