I've been very lucky to have great mentors throughout my career, and I enjoy serving as a mentor to young chemists. Many people ask me how to find a mentor, or what to do if they don't have access to a good mentor at work. I tell them to find a mirror and take a good look, because there you'll find the most important mentor you will ever have - and that person will be with you your entire life.
Tapping the potential of your mentor-in-the mirror requires self-reflection, honesty and willingness to change. It's easier to compensate for our areas of weakness by avoiding situations that require those skills, but that's not always in our best interest. Take some risks. If you're at a party, what fun is it to be a wallflower just because you don't know the dance steps? And chemists can dance, as 200 attendees at the ACS National Meeting celebrating the International Year of Chemistry showed us. So let's get on with learning some new dance steps so you can show off at the best party of all – your life.
Asking a few questions is the first step to self-mentorship. This is key to identifying the areas where you excel (and that you should leverage), and areas of improvement. Take a moment to ask yourself the following, and take some notes to track your answers.
1. What does my job require? Understanding the skills needed for your current job is the starting point for improving in your career. Refer to your job description and recent performance reviews to list out the skills you are expected to have, and roles you are expected to play. For each role, what knowledge or skills are needed? What skills are needed in order for you to advance to the next level in your organization?
Broaden your thinking to consider what it takes to be successful in your field, what individuals you admire, and what skills they have. What could you do to make a bigger difference in your career, or in your field? As you go further through this self-mentorship exercise, you will take a look at what's needed and what you have in your personal inventory. Identifying and addressing gaps will be a focal point for your self-mentorship strategy.
2. What am I really good at? Taking a personal inventory of your strengths and mapping them against your job requirements is one way to identify whether or not you're using your best skills. If you're not using all your strengths, can you adjust your role in the company to do so? I may be a chemist by training, but I'm also a strong public speaker. In my role at Dow, I'm responsible for building relationships with scientists and non-scientists to further the power of chemistry. My public speaking skills are an important part of communicating the possibilities of our exciting science and inspiring others – and I love my job because I get to utilize my favorite skills. You can find ways to utilize your unique skill set in your job, and it's important to do so to differentiate yourself and have a productive and fulfilling career.
3. Where are my areas for improvement? Now it's time to mind the gaps. Match your job description to your personal inventory and see what's lacking. By reviewing your performance assessments and input from others, are you seeing a "fatal flaw" that's continuously getting in your way?
Consider that some of the strengths in your personal inventory can also be linked with areas for improvement. For instance, you may be a good public speaker, but do you spend enough time listening? Many of our strengths have a "flip side" – like many areas in life, you can have too much of a good thing!