New Job? Great Mentors Can Help Change Your Career

March 10, 2022

The first few months in a new job can be overwhelming. Not only must you juggle new responsibilities while navigating an unfamiliar culture, you may be feeling a lot of pressure to hit the ground running and show your value fast. (Not exactly easy in a time of lean training budgets!) That’s why former Waffle House President and COO Bert Thornton says the first order of business should be finding a mentor.

“Over the course of my 40-year career, I’ve seen over and over that the most successful people are the ones who proactively seek to learn from others,” says Thornton, coauthor along with Dr. Sherry Hartnett of the new book High-Impact Mentoring: A Practical Guide to Creating Value in Other People’s Lives (BookLogix, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-6653-0344-6, $19.95, https://highimpactmentoringbook.com/ ). “That’s especially true for those starting a career or a new job.

“A great mentor can help a new employee contribute right away and at the same time avoid mistakes that might slow them down or hurt their career,” he adds. “For young people, who consistently say development is a top priority, it can be the ‘magic bullet.’”

Thornton, who has successfully mentored hundreds of rising leaders from Waffle House and beyond, explains that while a great mentor can help you learn the new skills and technical information you’ll need to succeed in your new job, they’ll also carefully focus on other critical success factors such as your personal growth, long-term goals, and professional network. They’ll motivate you, support you, serve as a sounding board, and, when necessary, tell you what you don’t want to hear.

Importantly, multiple studies show that compared to their non-mentored peers, employees in mentoring relationships receive higher compensation and more promotions, and are more satisfied with their careers.

That said, here’s how to find and connect with the right person (sooner rather than later):

First, be sure you’re ready to commit. Understand that mentoring is more than just a few friendly chats over coffee. A good mentor will get to know you in-depth: your likes, dislikes, goals, problems, background, education, experience, and more. They will also assign “homework” that might include self-development exercises, a reading list, on-the-job problem solving, and seeking out more education.

“You must be willing to put in the time and work if you want to reap the benefits of mentoring,” says Thornton. “No one drifts into greatness.”

Know what you want from the relationship. When asked what he looks for in mentees, Thornton says that self-awareness and a desire to learn are at the top of the list. Prepare by asking yourself questions like, What do I want to learn? What areas do I need to develop? What are my strengths and weaknesses? What do success and fulfillment look like to me?

“Your mentor will probably identify gaps in your skill set that you haven’t thought about or weren’t even aware of, but you should have a preliminary idea of what you want to get out of the relationship,” says Thornton.

Start by considering leaders who have taken an interest. During your first weeks on the job, has a leader taken you under their wing? Is there a particular person you seek out if you have questions or need advice? Formalizing this connection into a mentoring relationship might be the next logical step. And if not, perhaps that leader can connect you with another potential mentor.

“If you don’t know any potential mentors personally, you might expand your search to other respected individuals in your organization or field,” says Thornton. “Whom do you admire? Whose job might you want to have in the next five or ten years?”

Look for indicators that you and your prospective mentor will be compatible. Just because someone has a stellar résumé doesn’t mean they will be a good mentor for you. In addition to possessing technical skills and industry knowledge, your mentor should have a desire to teach and be someone with whom you share values and interests.

“Try to learn everything you can about a prospective mentor,” advises Thornton. “How do others view this person? Have they written any articles (or had articles written about them) that you can read? You might even look at their social media pages, if available, to get a sense of how they think, what their values are, and who they are outside of work. This matters, because a good mentor develops you as a person and not just as an employee.”

Step up and ask the question. (It doesn’t have to be the direct question.) Rather than asking, “Will you be my mentor?” you might choose to test the waters by asking a specific question like, “Could you tell me how you got started in this field?” or, “Do you have any advice for me on leading a more effective meeting?” Thornton also advises, “A good soft approach to asking the direct question is, ‘I have some thoughts and ideas about what we are doing, and you seem to be the expert in this field. I wonder if we might have a cup of coffee and talk about it.’

“I remember meeting a brand-new Waffle House manager while visiting his restaurant in my capacity as a senior leader,” Thornton continues. “He asked me, ‘Bert, how do I get promoted?’ I told him he had to make himself the ‘obvious choice’ and what followed was the first of many conversations over the years about how to do that—what it takes to succeed in business and life. Today, that young manager is an operational executive vice president at Waffle House.”

Make yourself an attractive mentee. Great mentors are always on the lookout for rising stars and emerging talent. A prospective mentor needs to know that developing you will be worth their time and effort. You don’t have to win an industry award in your first month on the job, but you should show that you are positive, fully engaged, responsible, and coachable. For instance: Be on time. Show enthusiasm. Proactively ask questions. Keep your word. Don’t assume you know it all. Most importantly, keep a great attitude no matter the circumstances. Your attitude is the single most observed thing about you.

“If a potential mentor sees that you possess motivation, honesty, a great attitude, and a desire to learn, they will be much more likely to say yes to a mentorship,” says Thornton.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that finding a quality mentor early on can change the trajectory of your entire career,” concludes Thornton. “Nowhere else will you find the same mix of relevant training, productive learning, and personal development—certainly not in school, in a seminar, or on a podcast. In a best-case scenario, your mentor will help you see yourself, your life, and your future in a new, inspiring way.”