Why You Should Never Just Have Lunch With Your Mentor

May 18, 2016, 12:00 AM UTC
Left to right: Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort and Matthew McConaughey plays Mark Hanna in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, from Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Paramo (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

MPW Insiders is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What is the most common mistake new hires make? is based on an interview with Raquel Oden, a managing director and market executive for the New York 5th Avenue office at Merrill Lynch.

One of the biggest mistakes new hires make is that they don’t seek out a mentor when they take on a new job or role. Finding the right person for guidance is not easy, especially for someone still getting to know the workings of a new team or organization. As a result, many new hires skip this important step, even though the payoff for their careers could be huge.

My mentor had a substantial influence on my career. I met her in the late 90s when I was around 28 and an analyst on the trading desk at an investment banking firm. She encouraged me to push beyond my comfort zone and to take risks, even when I was in a job I was happy with. That advice and support helped build my self-confidence, which made all the difference early in my career. So look deeper at mentors and role models – it can make the difference between success and failure in a new job.

It’s critical to choose your mentor carefully. Not everyone is well suited to the role. It’s best to select someone with a solid understanding of your function and the place it holds in the organization. Immediately, he or she can help you define your job broadly without limiting you to narrow parameters. Beyond the basics of introducing you to your team and people across the organization, they should guide you in the more subtle areas of culture and organizational dynamics. Most important, your mentor should encourage you to maintain an open mind as you define yourself in the organization in terms of where you fit and who you can become. Once you’ve gotten your feet wet, your mentor may be able to alert you to the potential for a broadened scope of responsibilities.

That said, it’s important to make the relationship a two-way street. Keep that person’s perspective in mind as well. What are they getting out of the time you spend together? What do you know about their role, their history, and their interests? Have a real interest in the person. (Hint: one thing people really love to do is talk about themselves. Keep that in mind when you meet with them). Have a specific agenda for those meetings. Don’t just “do lunch” – do something beneficial for both of you. Lunch for lunch sake doesn’t accomplish anything.

It’s also important how you develop the relationship. Don’t say, “Can you be my mentor?” Instead say something like, “Would you be OK if I checked in with you once a quarter?” The key is, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and ask for specific help.

And while it’s always important to have someone in your corner, it’s especially critical when introducing yourself to a new area, set of responsibilities or organization. Your mentor should be able to provide perspective on the organization and how you can fit into it. They should also have confidence in you, an understanding of why you were selected for the role and the unique value you bring to it.

Also, volunteer for new responsibilities that expose you to different people and areas of your business. Volunteer for the random assignment that might put you working alongside that person — even if you’re just in the same room together. It might put you in sight of that important person who can help you move your career in the right direction later.