How aspiring executives can benefit from working with a mentor

By Nicole Raphael, MA

We’ve all admired certain traits of our colleagues, contacts and supervisors.  Many of them have acted as silent role models for success behavior.  We emulate them in the hopes that our acting will one day turn into a genuine grasp of the leadership qualities that they possess.  If we are clever, then we also strategically seek out deeper relationships with our role models and maybe even formalize those relationships into a coaching or mentoring arrangement.

If you are an entry to mid-level professional and have stalled in your career progression or you’re at a place in your career where you need to broaden your network in order to get ahead, it could be time to actively seek a mentor to help you map out a plan for career development.

Most successful people have had a powerful mentor at one point of their career or another.  These mentorship arrangements are often career defining relationships that span years or even decades.  Mentorship is an age-old institution.  The defining leaders in our country passed through this old-boys network of systematic talent development and guidance, and I’m suggesting that young professionals should take notice of this tried and true strategy for career advancement.

Mentorship has traditionally consisted of offering sound advice, acting as a soundboard, providing introductions into the right network, and putting in a good word here and there.  This system works the best when there is a strong mentor, protégée relationship. That is to say that you may not receive all the benefits of being in a mentoring relationship from day one as trust, and most especially, entry into the mentor’s network is earned over time.  However, in order to reach our greatest potential as professionals, we often need the hand up from a powerful benefactor who has taken an interest in our career.

Due to the increase in peer competition, it is of critical importance for entry to mid-level professionals to find a mentor. When you’re on the first rungs of your career ladder, the journey to the top can seem very daunting.  We soon learn that our ultimate success in organizations is not based upon merit alone.  In business, it pays to have friends in high places.

The problem for young professionals is that these powerful benefactors often seem to sit in ivory towers at the top of organizations, so we often don’t have access to their wealth of knowledge and useful guidance.  This is especially the case for large organizations.  Furthermore, often-times we don’t really know the rules of the game of business.  Business is a game after all, and to be successful and advance to the Executive ranks, you have to play well.

Unlike chess where the best man wins, business is more like the children’s board game Chutes and Ladders.  In other words, your success in business can seem to be determined by pure luck and chance.   Many of us have experienced the feeling that career advancement opportunities are often a crap shoot.  We often take a few steps forward only to land on something that we’re ill prepared to handle and thus, we’re carried back down, licking our wounds and learning our lessons.   Mistakes in business are valuable teaching tools; however, the upshot is that without a knowledgeable and well-connected guide, the road to success can be difficult.  The good news is that there are some things that aspiring Executives can do to stack the odds in their favor.

When it comes to rising to the top of organizations and ensuring rapid professional development, you must develop relationships with powerful people who can help catapult your career.   The inter-personal relationships that we forge and learn from are called developmental relationships and they can be both formal and informal.

Learning from our co-workers is a good example of informal developmental relationships. Our bosses and colleagues, both past and present are invaluable resources that we should tap in order to learn about the pitfalls of business.  Even when we’ve had bad experiences at work, we can admit that they’ve taught us something useful about what to do, or what NOT to do.

For a more formal developmental arrangement, a mentor is a person who has taken interest in your career and is willing to guide you to reach your full potential.  They are usually someone you have admired and known for some time such as a former, upwardly-mobile boss who can give you valuable feedback about your performance and areas of improvement.  However, most important is that they are well-connected, successful and knowledgeable about business.  A mentor will impart their wisdom on you, which should help you avoid costly mistakes in your career.  They also act as a sounding board for ideas and a confidant who you can trust with not only the problems that you’re encountering in your career, but also managing the ever increasing responsibility that comes with success.  A good mentor is a guide, teacher, coach and counsellor.

Not all developmental relationships created equal.  A mentor will usually support both your career and social/psychological development.  However, you can still use your network of colleagues, peers, etc. to help guide you in some ways that are less intensive than a traditional mentoring relationship.  There is also the popular belief that there should be different mentors for different stages of your career.  For instance, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was mentored by International Relations Expert, Josef Korbel as a student at the University of Denver and was later taken into the fold of the National Security Council by Brent Scowcroft who remained her mentor for many years during her career.

In today’s competitive workplace, you can’t afford to run the risk of building your career by yourself.  It will take a lot longer to reach your ultimate career goals; or even worse, your progression could be stalled due to not having access to the necessary gatekeepers into the executive suite.   Working with a mentor can help you to navigate the game of business.

There are many ways to find a mentor.  As I mentioned, you can look at your current network.   Cast a wide net.  Your mentor could be someone outside your organization as well such as a local business owner or vendor that you’ve worked with.  There are also executive coaching services that offer talent mentorship programs.  Working with a mentor that you hire has several benefits.  If they have the right business background, then they will be able to connect you to top Executives, thus reducing ivory tower barriers.  Additionally, a mentor with a coaching or consulting background may be better prepared to help you map out your career path.

Nicole Raphael, MA, is a career coach with Heckers Development Group, LTD. She can be contacted at Ms. Raphael works with people at all levels of employment to help them in transition, write resumes, learn business etiquette, and become star employees. To find out more about our mentoring programs, please call 303.480.5484 for a free appointment (face-to-face or by phone/Skype) or go to


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