How to find a mentor

Everyone can benefit from a mentor, but how best to find one?

mentor word cloud

By the time foodservice directors rise to their current roles, there’s a good chance they are coordinating a mentorship program, or themselves mentoring younger colleagues. However, mentorships can be beneficial for operators at any stage.

“I firmly believe that you can continue learning throughout your career, and even after,” says Mark Schroeder, director of dining service at Royal Oaks Lifecare, a senior living community in Sun City, Ariz. “But I also believe that you should be able to teach and give that knowledge to others around you. You can always be mentoring one way or another, upward, sideways or downward.”

Here, operators tackle a few FAQs on seeking out a quality mentor.

Where should I look?

Conferences and workshops are a prime place to look for potential mentors, says Kevin Ponce, school nutrition services director for Oklahoma City Public Schools. If you work in a small town, look to your nearest major city, or vice versa. “I’ve met [directors] in small school districts who basically didn’t have a restaurant in town. The cafeteria was their restaurant,” says Ponce, who sees OKCPS as an advocate for these districts. “We do the same job; it doesn’t matter how big or small [the operation].” If operators spot a peer in an industry newsletter or publication with a great idea or unique perspective, Schroeder is a fan of reaching out to that person with a cold call or email. “Don’t let fear stop you from growing or from finding a good mentor,” he says.

What qualities should I look for?

Seek good communication skills and willingness to share, for starters. “I think people tend to want to keep their knowledge more close to the breast. Sometimes people are scared, if I teach someone this, they’re going to take my job,” Schroeder says. “If you find someone who is open to wanting to learn or teach, that’s the key part.” At conferences or workshops, observe how others interact, says Ponce. “Does that person have pleasant interactions with others?” Look for someone who is confident but not arrogant, and is easy to talk to.

Do they have to be in foodservice?

They certainly don’t have to be. “The position that you’re in as a director is a leadership role. And leadership is not field-specific,” Schroeder says. Who you seek out depends on what you most want to learn and whether that skill or trait is industry-specific or applicable across different fields. Emailing and video conferencing also open up the possibility to talk to a mentor on the other side of the country—or the world. “You may never meet that person in person,” Schroeder says.

What if they say no?

“Try to find someone else!” Schroeder says. Even better, consider it an opportunity rather than a dead end. “Just say, ‘Is there someone else that you may know that might be interested in talking to me about that?’”

From both sides

Schroeder shares his experience from either side of the mentorship aisle:

As a mentor: “I’ve been a food and beverage director for a little over 20 years now, but I was also an IT director for nine of those 20 years. So I was able to teach staff on the IT side as well as on the foodservice side.”

As a mentee: “My regional manager in a company I began with was an outstanding individual. It was in my 20s, and he really had a lasting impact. At the time, he walked me through and helped me to get the blinders off and how to see everything.”

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