Closing the Confidence Gap: The Importance of Mentors

By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

Earlier this year, we surveyed recent graduates, roughly a year past their graduation, to assess their perceptions of their man jumping across a giant gap awareness and confidence across five measures that correspond with our Five For Your First Five, the five key competencies that we believe all young professionals need to master in their first five years after college. The measures are:

Awareness of the importance of/Confidence in your ability to

  • Use your experience, interests, and strengths to create a plan for the future
  • Seek out feedback on personal and professional choices
  • Build relationships with mentors and sponsors to support your goals
  • Balance personal interests with professional obligations
  • Seek opportunities to intentionally grow your professional skills and abilities

Across the board, these young professionals marked themselves fairly high in terms of awareness. But when it comes to confidence in actually putting these items into practice, the numbers tell a much different story, ranging from a low of 36.25% who said they feel “very confident” seeking opportunities to intentionally grow their professional skills and abilities to a high of 51.25% who feel “very confident” using their experience, interests, and strengths to create a plan for the future. There’s a pretty strong confidence gap confronting these young professionals, in a time when they are largely being asked to “figure it out” on their own.

It is notable that the measure that scored lowest on the awareness scale was awareness of the importance of building relationships with mentors and sponsors. Great mentors give us a confidence boost in our abilities to set and pursue goals, create a life of meaning, and seek out new opportunities. Great mentors give us feedback on the choices that we are making to ensure that we are learning and growing. If you are lacking confidence in your abilities, it’s not surprising that you also lack some understanding of the importance of building relationships with great mentors.

We all, no matter our age or experience level, need robust networks of mentors, sponsors, wise counselors, accountability partners, and others to help us to progress, both personally and professionally. And it’s not enough just to be “aware” of the value that these networks bring. We have to actively work to build those relationships and to seek those people out. But how do you do that, when it feels like everyone else is so focused on their own goals and progress, that they couldn’t possibly have time to mentor you? Start by asking yourself these questions:

Am I paying attention? Most likely there are people around you, right now, who are actively trying to advise and to guide you on your path. You simply aren’t paying attention. So instead of asking the question, “Why won’t anyone mentor me?” try asking the question, “Who is already mentoring or guiding me and how can I take better advantage of that relationship?” That other person may not consider himself a mentor, and you may never define the relationship in that way. But are they giving you sound, objective advice and feedback? Do they encourage you and build your confidence? Are they the person you automatically go to when you have a hard question or a problem to solve? Pay attention to that.

Am I building intentional relationships? Mentoring relationships are built upon two fundamental characteristics: they are goal-oriented and they are relationship-driven. Individually, you need to identify the goals you are prepared to work on. But you also need to work on building intentional relationships with other people before you ask them to support your goals. Don’t wait around for someone to tap you on the shoulder. YOU build the relationships that you need, based on trust, and accountability, and respect.

Am I broadening my choices? Don’t limit potential mentors and connections to the people who are immediately around you. Diversify your network and the perspectives you are hearing. There can be a particular benefit to finding external mentors who can help you think through the political and cultural issues within your organization in a safe space. Think about people in professional organizations, civic organizations, social and alumni associations, and elsewhere. And seek out formal mentoring programs, which can expose you to people with whom you would not necessarily come in contact. Check to see if your organization offers a formal program you can join, and if not, think about whether you could start one. Chances are if you are looking for it, others are as well.

Finally, once you have gotten honest about your needs, clarified your intentions, set some goals you are willing to work on, and looked at your network for someone with whom you feel comfortable, just make the ask. Share your goals and what you are asking for, both in terms of time and effort. Be reasonable: set a timeframe of no more than six months, to start with. Be strategic and ask for what you need.

If you don’t feel comfortable asking someone to be your mentor in a formal way, just ask for their feedback or guidance, and work to build the relationship over time. Sometimes asking someone for mentorship feels like pressure. Asking someone for guidance or feedback can lower that barrier while still building a great relationship to support your growth.

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