The hidden benefits of joining a formal mentoring program

On the eve of the latest Women in Cyber mentoring event hosted by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (which you can read about here), I have been reflecting on the mentors I have had over the years. Formal and informal, these people have had an enormous impact on my life – sometimes without them even realising it. Coming from a big family, I’ve always been surrounded by people who have already travelled paths beyond me and have the scars to prove it. Outside of home, I’ve had various mentoring relationships with bosses, peers, friends of friends and lecturers to name a few.

A number years ago, I landed in Asia knowing about 5 people locally and I needed direction. I applied for and successfully joined the Australian Chamber of Commerce mentoring program. Part of the application process was to articulate what I was seeking to achieve from the mentoring relationship. It felt very much like a dating application –

 “Fresh-faced expat mum of two working in a regional role seeks expat mentor who has navigated senior management roles in Asia and prospered from the experience.” 

The program began with a speed networking event at a bar where 20 tables were crammed into a small space with mentors on one side and mentee’s playing musical chairs on the other – 5 minutes to fire questions at the mentor and get a feel for if we ‘clicked’. Interestingly, there were plenty of people along this road of 20 stops that fit my brief, who could have provided professionally what I was looking for. But it wasn’t until the final table, late in the evening that I met a woman who would later become my mentor. We chatted easily and at the end of the night, we both marked each other down on our ‘dance card’ (as was the process). A few weeks later, we met for the first session. Even though we were part of a program which would run for about 10 months, we could meet as often as we liked and talk about anything – there was no structure, program expectations or deliverables as such. 

While my mentor was from a financial services background, had a very different family life to me and knew little of cyber security or the utility industry I was working in – we had great discussions that took my thinking in new directions. Her life experience and years as a leader were of great value to me and we agreed to continue meeting long after the official program ended. The point of this story is that mentors come in all shapes and sizes. Mentors don’t have to be in your industry or even when they are, they may not have trodden the same path you are aspiring to walk. In fact, in my experience, those who have come from (and are going to) completely different places to you might have the greatest impact.

If you are seeking a mentor, consider applying to or joining a formal program with an organisation that you respect. Think outside the box when it comes to selecting/approaching a person to be your mentor as you can never know the value of discussing your highs and lows with an unlikely mentor until you reflect back later on how far you have come. If you too have had positive results from a mentoring program in the past, what made your relationship great?