It's just as hard to be a mentor as find one. My own criteria for picking a mentor might not fit for anyone else. For example, I pick mentors for myself because I admire how their minds work. I’m a huge fan of Carol Stephenson - no matter how often she has changed industry, her ability to create a relevant strategic framework that opens both minds and revenue has inspired me for years. If I had the nerve, I’d be driving to her office right now to ask for her time! But I don't want to run Lucent or Stentor or Ivey. I'm a fan of hers for how she thinks vs. what she's working on at the moment.
So when I'm asked:
1) How do you find someone to be a mentor outside of your organization?
2) When that person is outside of the organization, how do you handle talking about things that matter to you and your work, but might be considered confidential/proprietary intellectual property?
I can offer these guidelines.
First question – are you looking for coaching on your current job/challenge or are you looking for mentoring on your ongoing development?
It does get tricky when you have a current work issue that can't be discussed without an NDA. If you are looking for a solution to the actual problem or an in-depth view to the subject, then certainly stay with the subject matter experts cleared to examine the problem.
If you are looking at your own behaviour or means of approaching problems – whether it is to find a new book/course/tool to expand your education on the subject or to be more adept at the politics of the situation – then it is easier to avoid the confidential details and take a broader long-term approach that is part of your own development cycle.
Mentoring is more about long-term solutions and expanded education. Coaching is often about an immediate issue that can be a specific/one-time question.
Mentoring is also about trust – you will stray into grey zones all the time as your relationship develops. An open conversation, while respecting boundaries of those not present, assumes a high level of disclosure. (It is like being under NDA every time I hear someone say “of course this stays in this room”.)
I think the best compromise might be to look at the associations around your current career. These (often not-for-profit) groups bring together folks with common skills/careers/challenges and have often have mentoring programs for which you can both volunteer and ask for a mentor.
Going outside your own company, no matter how big or small it is, is a great advantage.
* you are never in danger of having someone influence your career (promotions, raises evaluations, etc.) without your knowledge. Power should not be lightly given.
* you gain valuable exposure to how things work elsewhere
* it keeps everyone from being 'too close' to the problem/issue/question, so you gain fresh perspectives
* it offers different and sometimes broader resources and career exposure.
The downside is they might not see the nuances with which you are struggling. It does put more of an onus on you to be a better communicator in the relationship.
I talked about how to find a mentor in an earlier post. Start asking around!