Mentoring Matters: Show What You Know & Grow

Start a conversation with PPA members about mentoring, and it’s hard to decide who’s getting the most out of this loveliest example of professional networking. Make the most of your socializing and jumpstart your relationship building with these suggestions from PPA members who have experience with mentoring and being mentored.

Choose Wisely
“I figured out pretty early on that I learn best in small groups, so mentor relationships provided the best way for me to learn how to improve my photography skills and business,” says Heather Smith, Cr.Photog., CPP. “When I picked out who I wanted to learn from, I didn’t just choose people because I liked their art. I also looked for business people I could respect—how do they treat others, how do they manage their businesses, how do they teach and give feedback?”

Carol Andrews Jensen, M.Photog.Cr., ABI, says she tells photographers the same. “It’s not just about an f-stop. You need mentors in all areas of your life. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my mentors, and you need to choose the people you want most to be associated with.”

All You Have to Do Is Ask
How do you find a mentor? According to our panel, it’s just a matter of asking—of course, they also admit that’s easier said than done. “The hardest part of this whole process is working up the nerve to ask the people you most admire to help you,” says Smith. “Deep down, we’re all a little insecure about where we are professionally. We don’t want to feel like we’re being an imposition to someone else, so we feel like it’s this great big deal, but from the perspective of the mentor, it’s not. Most of us love to teach, so mentoring provides an outlet for that.”

Mentoring may not be everyone’s cup of Diet Coke® though, so if someone tells you no, don’t get your feelings hurt, says David Esquire. “The worst possible thing they can say to you is no. And if they do say that, let your business brain kick in and don’t take it personally—just keep looking for those people you feel you can learn from and keep inquiring.”

If you need some ideas, Smith suggests looking through Professional Photographer magazine and the Find-a-Photographer database for photographers whose work or business and marketing ideas catch your eye. “It’s not so much that you’re looking for someone’s style to mimic, but it has to be someone whose work you respect. Both of my mentors have very different styles than I, but I have the utmost respect for their technical skills.”

Is This Seat Taken?
David Grupa, M.Photog.Cr., CPP, says you’ll improve your chances of finding mentors if you attend local events and the casual networking dinners and coffee klatches that invariably occur in conjunction with them. “Plan for that extra hour or 90 minutes,” he advises.

Jensen suggests to not forget the power of a power lunch. “An offer of lunch or just a cup of coffee can go a long way toward helping you build a relationship with another professional you’d like to network with.”

Purposeful Planning
Once you’ve broken the ice, come prepared to maximize your mentor’s time and expertise. According to Jensen, the people who most impress her are the ones who are very clear about their objectives and have specific areas that they’d like to query her about: “Approach mentors with specifics about what you’re trying to learn—building new product lines, posing techniques, etc. Be very specific and show me your plan, and I’ll do everything I can to help you.”

Getting Down to Business

Jensen adds that you also need to be ready to put in the sweat equity. “You have to earn it by being willing to do the work,” she says. “It’s my responsibility to be caring and sensitive, but it’s the student’s responsibility to be prepared and be willing to change.”

Grupa says that connects to being fearless. “You have to be flexible, willing to take advice and act on it—to be fearlessly willing to change.” And he adds that in those kinds of relationships, often the teacher learns as much as the student. “Every time I mentor someone, I get new, fresh ideas. I’m forever reminded that none of us knows it all. There is always something to learn.” 

Smith considers that fresh perspective one of the most valuable benefits of mentoring. “Students ask all kinds of questions and ‘because I do it that way’ isn’t good enough as an answer,” she explains. “When you teach, you learn. You have to be able to explain technique and principles in detail. In the process, I find that I often discover something that helps me improve my skills—it keeps me at the top of my game.”

Teacher Appreciation:  Pass It On
How do you thank mentors? “Show progress,” says Grupa. “Take the knowledge and apply it.”  Plus, Jensen and Smith both stress how much of an honor it is to even be asked for help. 

And of course, “pay it forward,” says Esquire. When you get the chance, take a chance and mentor someone, too. Who knows? You may find that you get back as much or more than you give. “Mentoring others makes me so happy,” says Smith. “I get such joy from it. It just makes me feel good.”

Want to Learn More about Being or Finding a Mentor?

  • Attend a local guild or affiliate meeting. All of the members interviewed for this article mentioned local events as great placse to get started if you’re new to PPA or if you’re just looking to build a professional network.
  • Sign up for PPA Business Consulting, where established PPA members mentor clients as a part of the program.
  • Does someone featured in the magazine or one of PPA’s newsletters have ideas that sound good to you? Research them through the Find-a-Photographer database and give them a call. They may be looking for more opportunities to network with other PPA members, too.
  • Get on theLoop. It’s a great place to get to know other PPA members, get advice and discuss all kinds of topics.
  • Attend Super 1 Day classes. Jensen says Super 1 Day is the ideal place to find a mentor.  The daylong, usually hands-on classes are small, and it’s easy to get to know others. Classes occur twice a year, and you can easily search classes in your location. 
  • Come to Imaging USA…especially if you’ve never been before. There’s no better place to rub elbows with thousands of photographers and other industry professionals.

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