Stranger in a Strange Land

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Picture this: you’ve just graduated, gotten a new job, moved to a new town and it’s the first day of the rest of your life. 

Only one problem: you don’t know anybody and you have no idea what you’re doing, you don’t even know who to go to for advice. It sounds like a daunting reality, but it doesn’t have to be. One of the first steps to success in a new workplace is finding a decent mentor.

“For a person going into a new environment, a new job or a new industry, there are two questions you want to address,” said Oregon State professional development professor Dan Ziriax. “What do you want to learn and what kind of position do you want to have? That’s a great place to begin thinking about what kind of people you want to connect with to help obtain both of those goals.”

That sounds easy enough, you’ve got to know your role and where you want to be, but then what?

“As the new person, asking someone to coffee or lunch and immersing yourself in things that are going on is going to help develop relationships with your colleagues that could lead to mentorship,” said OSU professional development professor Jennifer Villalobos. 

Why would you even want a mentor? After all, you’ve just graduated, you’ve been listening to mentor after mentor for years and years now.

“Most of the time, students wander,” said Ziriax. “That’s why, in part, most people end up doing something completely different from what they initially planned.”

So if step one is charting a course and getting to know people, step two is choosing someone who you’re going to want to spend a lot of time with, which can be an intimidating task.

“When I look for a mentor, I look for someone who is going to understand me on a professional and personal level,” said OSU professional development professor Lauren Caruso. “Someone who understands my goals.”

Now that you’re more familiar with your workplace and have found someone you want to learn from, where do you go from here?

“Ask,” said Caruso. “We’re so hesitant to ask people for their help, but honestly I think people are pretty flattered.”

Sometimes asking is the hardest part, as individuals we can get so caught up in our own perspectives that we forget our coworkers are usually ready and willing to help out.

“Most of the time individuals are super excited about helping someone climb the ranks,” said Ziriax. “It’s just a matter of making that connection, whether it’s through Linkedin, Zoom, a phone call, or email.”

That mentorship you’re seeking though likely won’t come immediately. It can take time and repetition. 

“People will find that mentorship comes informally, when you continue to ask the same person for advice,” said Villalobos. “When you’re starting to really build on that relationship with them and it becomes more consistent.

If you’re a business major in a new job with a more rigid structure, your workplace might have a mentorship program where you have a mentor assigned to you. Those can be effective and simple if you navigate it properly. 

“[A formalized program] is a little more forced,” said Villalobos. “It’s still really effective and really important, but you’re gonna be told ‘here’s the person who’s going to mentor you,’ so maybe it takes a little more time for that relationship to build because it isn’t being organically formed.”

Now let me paint you a new scenario: you’ve met someone above you and you’ve hit it off, you think they’d be a great mentor figure. The problem? You’re not the only one. Your coworkers have noticed this person too and also want to be mentored. Now what?

“From a mentor’s perspective, if you’re going to mentor well, you can’t mentor everyone,” said Caruso. “You’re going to pour a lot of time and energy into [your mentee] so you have to be smart about who you say yes to.”

When you’ve got competition for something, there are a few ways you can make yourself stand out.

“In a new organization, it’s about working hard,” said Villalobos. “Putting in the hours, really learning, asking questions, staying past the time you’re supposed to be there, coming in early, all those kinds of things trigger how you’re going to interact with that company and the value you’re going to bring.”

In the end it all comes down to the opportunities you can make for yourself. Mentorship is something that simply won’t work if it’s forced. The best kind of menthorships are going to be the ones you build over time.

“Most of the time the best mentors you have in life are the ones you would have never expected,” said Villalobos. “So being genuine in any interaction you have in the workplace or in life… getting rid of some of those preconceived notions and going into any situation with an open mind can really help.” 

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