Advancing in your career can be tricky, especially as you get more senior. There are fewer positions and the criteria become murkier. It’s hard to know exactly what you need to do to get ahead.

This is especially crucial when you get to points in your career when you have to demonstrate you’ve “got what it takes” in order to keep advancing. I call these “Career Gates”, and it’s incredibly helpful to have mentors who can help show you the way forward.

For example, when I was up for Managing Director the first time, my mentor (also my boss’s boss) came to my desk and said, “May, you need Jil Sander.” As in the fashion designer known at that time for her power suits for businesswomen.

He had been in closed-door promotion discussions and learned that other decision-makers didn’t think I looked the part. Let’s just say that people were still mistaking me for a flight attendant in airports. And my shoes needed an upgrade, or at least some shoe polish.

I was so head down at my desk and focused on doing an excellent job that I had totally missed that I didn’t look the part of a managing director. It was too late for that promotion, but I eventually got my “managing director look” together and got the promotion the next year.

If my mentor hadn’t pointed out that my “brand” needed an upgrade, I might have gotten stuck at this crucial Career Gate because of something that I was able to fix with one or two shopping trips.

Just as my mentor helped me see what I needed to do to demonstrate my suitability for a bigger role, you can deploy your mentor to help you as well.

Specifically, here are three things your mentor can help you with to advance your career:

  • Figure out what it takes
  • Approach the right people
  • Show you’ve got what it takes

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Help you figure out “what it takes”

The thing about advancing to the next level is that exactly what it takes isn’t always obvious. It can feel like those radio shows where they say the 3rd caller wins the prize, but when you call the phone just rings and rings without getting picked up. My mother would laugh and say the winner is probably the owner’s family member.

But if you don’t have the same last name as the company founder, there are still ways to get ahead. And a mentor can be helpful in demystifying what the “what it takes” is.

What it takes also can be different in different roles and departments. In one area, it could be generating revenue, bringing in new clients or building market share. In another, it might be strategic insight or innovation.

And the same criterion could look different at different stages of your career.

For example, being strategic as a junior person could be seeing the bigger picture and not needing to be told every single step, being able to adapt and be resourceful with limited instruction from their manager.

But as a senior person, being strategic could be positioning the group for the next cycle and bringing key insights into ways to future-proof the business.

Finally, “what it takes” can be in the eye of the beholder. Someone from a technical background could value expertise and problem solving while a general manager might value interpersonal connection and the ability to communicate.

A mentor can provide valuable guidance based on their knowledge of the organization.

Which brings us to the next way in which a mentor can help.

Help you get in front of the right people

Often, the formal organization chart isn’t the same as the “power chart”. There may be people with big titles who have less pull than you think, and others who are opinion leaders despite being part of the rank and file.

That’s where a mentor can help you identify the key decision makers and influencers so you can focus your attention on building your reputation and relationships with the right people.

Your mentor can also give you background on what they’re like, their interests, how they think, and what they value.

For example, one of my clients was struggling to build a relationship with her boss. Her biggest frustration was that he kept cutting short their weekly meetings which prevented her from updating him on everything that was going on.

It turns out that he had a short attention span and wanted just the highlights in a 5 to 10-minute meeting and wasn’t interested in the detail. It’s the kind of insight that might be common knowledge to a mentor and all you have to do is ask.

Similarly, if your mentor knows that a key stakeholder is an avid opera goer, has a daughter who’s a basketball player and likes to travel, this gives you several areas where you can find a genuine overlap of interests. And that gives you some basis of common interest in addition to the business.

Where your mentor knows someone personally then they can also make introductions to pave the way for you to build your relationship and become a known quantity to them. All of which is essential to your career progression.

This leads to the third way a mentor can help.

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Find ways to show you’ve got what it takes

It’s not enough to have what it takes if you’re the only one who knows it. You also need others to see that you’ve got what it takes. So once you’ve figured out the “what” and the people who need to see you in that light, a mentor can help you find ways to show you’ve got what it takes.

For example, they might be able to recommend a project to work on or committee to join to demonstrate your leadership. Or perhaps they can get you on the agenda of a senior level meeting where you can present your business to a broader group.

And since they travel in different circles than you, your mentors could have insights into what else is going on in the sector that could be a good opportunity for you to demonstrate your capabilities.

But what if you don’t have the right mentors yet?

If you’re looking through your list of mentors and realizing they’re not senior enough to help in these ways, remember that it doesn’t need to be senior to provide insights. For example, a peer who used to work for your boss could give you great insights into how she likes to work and what matters to them.

Also recognize that mentoring doesn’t involve a formal contract. If you ask for advice and they are happy to give it to you, they’re mentoring you. All it takes is for you to go and ask, then see how it goes. If the two of you “click”, that’s a great basis for a mentoring relationship. So take the initiative. You may be surprised.

Just don’t make the mistake of trying to go it alone.

Navigating your career successfully is stressful enough as it is. You owe it to yourself to get as much help and support as you can. Having a mentor goes a long way in providing the support and insight you need.

And since no one has the monopoly on all relevant advice and guidance, it’s ideal to have more than one mentor. When you have multiple people who can advise you, you’ll see the full picture of the organization and have the best chance to advance quickly and confidently.

When it comes advancing in your career, cultivate mentors who can help you:

  • Figure out what it takes – it’s not straightforward to figure out what needs to be true for people to see you as ready for the next level and a mentor can help demystify the process.
  • Get in front of the right people – the formal organizational chart isn’t the same as the power chart, and a mentor can help with introductions and advice to set you up for success.
  • Show you’ve got what it takes – it’s not enough to have what it takes, you also need others to see you in action and a mentor can help identify ways to demonstrate you’re ready.

What would you find most valuable for a mentor to help you with?

Leave a comment and let me know.

For more actionable advice on finding and developing great relationships with mentors, check out these tips and trainings in Career Mastery™:

  • How to Find Great Mentors and Sponsors
  • The 7 Conversations to Have with Your Sponsor and Mentors
  • How to Make It a Two-Way Street with Your Mentors and Sponsors
  • How to Build Key Relationships to Take Your Career to the Next Level

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