If you’re a job seeker with a disability who wants to build a meaningful career in today’s mainstream job market, you need mentors who will guide you along the way. At least, that’s what I’ve learned from my 50 years of business experience as a person with lifelong cerebral palsy, which means I walk and talk with quite some difficulty.
A mentor is any adult who guides the development of another person. He or she provides individualized feedback and guidance with your specific tasks and adjustment issues in mind. A mentor does not necessarily just teach you how to reach a goal. He or she teaches you how to be the person who can and will achieve it. As an employee with a disability, for instance, you may need someone to help you go beyond the "how to do the task" to "how to be a skillful and reliable performer of a task."
For years, companies have had formal mentoring programs for their employees. But gaining a mentor also sometimes happens through happenstance as you push yourself into mainstream society. In fact, in my 73 years of life on this Earth, I’ve found mentors often find me first instead of me finding them. For instance, in a 1992 leadership development seminar (where, as usual, I was the only participant with a disability), I met adjunct Professor Jack, an executive with pharmaceutical and consumer products experience at the senior vice presidential level. He also had experience coaching a college student with cerebral palsy and became my mentor at just the right time, when I was establishing my own small business. But, avoid relying solely on happenstance for gaining an on-the-job mentor that’s right for you.
Here are some guidelines you and your supervisor can follow for choosing an organization’s “official” mentor for you as a new employee:
Mentors in business settings must, first of all, be experienced employees, both in terms of knowing the business and the job but also in knowing the nuances of how the company operates on a day-to-day basis. Effective mentors have the ability to understand and interpret the corporate culture.
Effective mentors must possess certain interpersonal skills in terms of the ability to build positive relationships with others. Look for someone who cares about people.
An effective mentor shares a desire to see the company succeed and recognizes that teamwork is the key. Look for an experienced employee who has the trust and confidence of others within the organization and continually steps forward to help others while working on teams and on committees.
A good mentor assesses all sides of a situation. He or she gives you freedom to grow at your own pace but always challenges you to test unchartered, often uncomfortable territory so you continually make progress toward your goals.
Your mentor needs to be a good listener and set aside dedicated time with you, recognizing that mentoring is an ongoing relationship. Look for patience in your mentor.
Your mentor must be committed to knowing you as a person, understanding your special needs and working for effective inclusion in the workplace.
The best employee mentors are intelligent people who can assess all sides of a situation. Your mentor must be able to look at your situation and know what is remediable and what is not.
Your mentor must be discreet about what needs to be brought to the supervisor’s attention. Your mentor’s goal in this regard is to help you prepare for job performance evaluations so your supervisor sees you as a confident, effective and highly satisfactory employee. Your conversations with him or her need to be confidential.
Your mentor doesn’t need to be highly trained in issues about disability and employment. A good mentoring candidate will be someone who is open and enthusiastic about learning. It is no more of a benefit to anyone involved to have a mentor who holds you to lower standards just because you have a disability than it is to have someone who shows bias because of your disability.
Your mentor should have a healthy self-image. Self-confident people are willing to suggest new approaches. They make good leaders. And they will view your success as a reflection of their mentoring ability. You don't want advice from someone who'll be intimidated by your increasing stature and expertise.
Your mentor should give you honest praise and criticism. Your mentor should feel comfortable discussing your flaws as well as your talents. He or she should be empathetic, willing to admit to an occasional mistake or lack of information, adept at asking probing questions and eager to serve as a source of support, encouragement, and problem-solving ideas
So how do you find a mentor who fits the above profile and is right for you?
Your immediate supervisor may be a logical choice, but take a look at the political climate in your department, recommends Taunee Besson, CMF, president of Career Dimensions, Inc. “Will your co-workers be upset if your manager becomes your personal mentor? Is your manager someone who has respect and contacts throughout the company?” she asks. “If your answer is ‘no’ to the first question and ‘yes’ to the second one, then your boss could be a good choice.”
But beyond your supervisor, consider these possibilities:
Once you find someone with the qualities of an effective mentor, how do you begin the relationship? Consider the direct approach: call or talk to that individual in person. You can say, “I’ve been watching your career, like your ideas and would appreciate the opportunity to develop a mentoring friendship with you.” Or, ask a mutual friend to serve as an intermediary. If you can find a connection to introduce you to your potential mentor, your request won't seem so forward.
An effective mentor can help you jump from isolation as a person with a disability to a more confident, accomplishing participant within the mainstream of society. Without a mentor, you run the risk of remaining self-centered, naive, unchallenged, unfulfilled – and not reaching your full potential in a workplace setting.
Copyright © 2016. Hasse Communication Counseling, LLC. All rights reserved.
Jim Hasse (www.jimhasse.com), Global Career Development Facilitator, has compiled and edited the recommendations of HR experts and the personal observations of both jobseekers and hiring managers into Perfectly Able: How to Attract and Hire Talented People with Disabilities (www.perfectlyable.com/), a comprehensive disability recruitment guidebook for hiring managers published by AMACOM (September 2010), the publishing arm of the American Management Association. He’s the founder of www.cerebral-palsy-career-builders.com, a comprehensive career coaching guide for parents of youngsters with cerebral palsy, and owner of Hasse Communication Counseling, LLC, which develops win-win direct mail fundraisers for champions of disability employment.