I’ve had a career mentor since I was born, though I didn’t realize it at first.
Career mentorship just isn’t relevant until you’re an anxious college freshman (me), or a first-time entry-level employee (everyone else). But even when I started thinking about where I wanted my career path to lead, it still didn’t hit me that a fantastic source of guidance was also the source of my favorite minestrone soup recipe.
My mother went back to work two weeks after I was born. She had a great arrangement where for six weeks she worked as many flexible hours as she could, took vacation days to make up the difference, and then switched back to full-time. She has three other children, and has never stepped out of the workforce for longer than a cursory maternity leave. When I asked her how soon she went back to work after one of my sisters was born, she admitted to checking emails on the way to and from the hospital. Leaning in indeed.
But she’s not Sheryl Sandburg, because she doesn’t want to be. She proved herself as a valuable worker early on so she was able to request a flexible schedule, and she’s made (or turned down) more than one career change to avoid limiting her time with her family. Her biggest regret is the one time my preschool-aged brother was ill and she had to ask a family friend to take him to the doctor. She will probably never forgive herself for that.
This is all only relevant because I want to be her. She’s in management consulting, and within the past year, my constantly shifting interests finally settled in the same field as my mother’s. Her job is 97 percent problem solving and 3 percent magic, and I love that. So I decided to make the switch from groveling for nonprofit grant-writing internships to groveling for private-sector business internships, despite the fact that I have an (in-progress) English major with Classical Languages and Linguistics minors. By some miracle, I persuaded someone to interview me over Skype for a marketing internship at an IT staffing firm, and four weeks later, I had the job.
Due to work location proximity (our offices were a half-mile apart) and a shortage of vehicles in my household, my mom and I carpooled to our respective jobs. This gave us around two and a half hours of time together every business day, and it was the perfect chance to ask her all the questions I’d been building up the night before or during the course of the day: How should I approach my boss about needing more work? What do I do if they offer me a job at the end of the summer? Should I ask the IT guy to connect my work email to my phone even if I’m just an intern?
And herein lies the key to my successful mentoring relationship with my mother. It isn’t that she’s my mom—it’s that I’m comfortable asking her seemingly stupid questions. Business is situational; the whole purpose of mentorship is to provide a resource that can work one-on-one with you through specific challenges you’re up against. The best part of my interest in my mom’s field is not necessarily her connections, but my easy access to her knowledge, experience, and advice. In short—while the convenience is hard to beat, anyone can have a mentoring relationship like the one I have with my mother.
When you have a great mentor, there are no stupid questions. This is a person you could come to with almost any work problem: not just what to wear to an interview, but how to apologize when you’ve broken the copier, or when it’s creepy (or appropriate) to request a LinkedIn connection. She’ll help you figure out how to turn your varied work experience into great interview stories about your strengths, and maybe even let you call her before your interview for a quick pep talk. She can tell you how office birthday parties work and what to do if you want to take on more responsibility. You two can exchange Fast Company articles and talk about professional development in both of your careers.
So while I’m very lucky to have been born into a great mentorship situation, proximity was really only the jumping-off point. Anyone can build a relationship with the same benefits, and in fact, learning to do just that is a valuable career skill. If I’ve learned anything from this whole situation, it’s that mentorship opportunities can appear in unexpected places, and you should take them when they do. And, if possible, my advice would be to try to pick a mentor who makes perfect chocolate chip cookies while on a conference call like mine does. It’s excellent professional development.
Madeline Stone is from the Midwest and proud of that. She is currently finishing up her degree at Macalester College and is waiting to see what will happen next. She’ll keep you posted.