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!
4. What is my development priority? You can't work on everything at once, and your top priority should be addressing any "fatal flaws." Next, address any gaps between your skills and requirements for success in your job.
5. What are my development goals and how can I achieve them? Now that you know what to work on, you need to set goals to help you move forward. These goals might be dictated by your job, industry standards, or a sense of personal achievement. With self-mentorship, setting a series of smaller goals to address an overall development goal is a solid strategy. You also don't want to lose sight of your strengths as you focus on your weaknesses! Professional development "cross-training" around strategic, systematic goals is important to make sure that you're building yourself into a champion.
For example, I recently completed a 475-mile bicycle trip across Pennsylvania (check it out online at the Pedal PA Penn Central Bicycle Tour). Over the course of the trip, we traveled more than 29,000 feet uphill – a distance that rivals the height of Mt. Everest. At the outset, cycling that distance within a set time frame was a daunting task. To get to that ultimate goal, I set a series of smaller training goals that further improved my strength (endurance) while addressing my weakness (speed). I utilized a cross-training approach – some days focusing on endurance, and other days focusing on speed. Through this approach, I became a stronger cyclist overall.
6. Where can I go to learn? This is where you get to play detective. When I first moved into a global role, I realized that what I lacked was a global network. To figure out how to build one, I sought out individuals who had cultivated global networks and observed their tactics. How are they interacting with others? Whom are they reaching out to and in what circumstances? Your own power of observation and willingness to ask questions can help you access tools and role models to further your own development.
Self-mentorship is not a one-time exercise – it's something we continuously do to stay competitive and work toward being our very best at work and in life. I encourage you to check in with your mentor-in-the-mirror often and review your development goals and progress at least quarterly.
What's your self-mentorship story? Have any resources to share? Connect with me on Twitter @KatieChemist and let's keep this important conversation going. Together, we can help each other be the best we can be.
Catherine T. "Katie" Hunt, Ph.D., is director, Innovation Sourcing and Sustainable Technologies, at The Dow Chemical Company and 2007 President of the American Chemical Society. Here bimonthly column appears exclusively on ChemicalProcessing.com. Follow her on Twitter @KatieChemist