Whether it is a teacher at school, a particularly inspiring boss, or your parents, we all rely on mentors to help our personal development. Some will have a profound effect on our lives, others may not exert such obvious influence, but all will shape you in your career and personal life.
When finding mentors and role models, most will look to those they feel most comfortable with. These can often be people that are similar to you and reinforce the positive things you already know about yourself.
But you will derive most benefit from mentors who force you to address the uncomfortable sides of your character. That said, a good mentor will never be negative but will offer you "tough love", pushing you out of your comfort zone and helping you to address areas in a challenging and fulfilling way.
To choose a good mentor, you need to ask yourself uncomfortable questions. Identify people that inspire you and demonstrate the skills, attributes and attitudes that you would like to exhibit in yourself. It does not matter whether these people are colleagues, friends or even clients.
Most mentors tend to be more experienced than you and will enjoy passing on their knowledge and wisdom. By gaining their trust you will be in a good position to offer your mentor reciprocal feedback.
When managing the relationship with your mentor it is important to ask for feedback. Try to set objectives and use their advice to achieve these. A good mentor is not someone you will turn to every day. They help set you on a path and come back to you at checkpoints to make sure you are still on course. Give them feedback about how you are progressing and the impact of their advice. This is critical to maintain their interest and give them a sense of what they have helped to achieve.
For IT professionals there are a number of classic areas where the industry as a whole is perceived to be weak. Business alignment is a common theme affecting IT professionals at all levels.
Rather than risking key customer relationships by second guessing, try to identify a mentor in a similar situation who can empathise with your customers and help you see things from their perspective.
If your stakeholder is a chief financial officer, for example, try to spend time with somebody else in a finance role to gain a window on their world.
But choosing the right mentor is not just about functional expertise. You need to identify the personalities that are central to your success. If the managing director is a gregarious character and responds well to confident, outgoing types, try to get advice from a comparable personality.
The need to manage and influence in a matrix environment is also key to the majority of IT roles. You must manage through influence rather than traditional management structures.
Ask yourself who are the people that you want to work for? Identify people who inspire you because of their achievements, not just who they are in a company hierarchy. By understanding how these people command respect, you will be able to start to develop these skills.
Your mentor could be right in front of you. Take a moment to look at the people around you and grasp the opportunity to learn from them. This could be one of the best ways to help you realise your potential. As the US poet Ralph Emerson said, "My chief want in life is someone who shall make me do what I can."
Sam Gordon is principal consultant, executive IT, at Harvey Nash
This was first published in October 2005