Finding the right mentor can boost your career exponentially faster, breaking down barriers and helping you avoid mistakes and pitfalls along the way. Similarly, offering a mentorship displays your willingness to invest in those pursuing success behind you while polishing your leadership skills along the way.
Having and being a mentor are both significant activities for growing in and managing your career. That is not to say that you should engage in both simultaneously. You must weigh this consideration against your available time. In either case, identifying those who have the potential to advise you and whom you can advise in turn are critical. Because finding the right person for the job or being the right person for the job is vital if the relationship is to be valuable.
Selecting a mentor
Deciding who has the qualifications to mentor you will take time and consideration. There are some questions to ask yourself before you ask someone else. Make a list of current and former colleagues, instructors, and professional associates who could potentially be a mentor. LinkedIn is a readily available source to build such a list, but you could also review other social networks. However, bear in mind that not every possible mentor may be connected with you online, so you might want to scan your memory. Another technique to build a list would be to sort personal and professional e-mail accounts by sender, to review possible candidates.
As you put your list together, mull over the qualities that you are looking for in a mentor. Below are two lists of mentorship traits. Neither is meant to be exhaustive, so there may be qualities that you are looking for, which are not listed. I’m going to define the sense in which I mean it. Feel free to use your own words and tweak them to your understanding.
Key Traits for Mentors
Self-Aware – This may go without saying, but if a potential mentor lacks self-awareness, they aren’t going to be helpful in you deepening your awareness. You have to have the skill to teach it.
Insightful – Some people have stronger powers of observation than others. They catch subtle nuances of language, gesture, or action that may be missed by others.
Wise – Does the person you want to work with have the ability to apply knowledge appropriately. Many people are smart without being wise.
Challenging – Does the potential mentor have the ability to challenge you? Do they care enough about you to tell you hard things?
Communicative – As my friend, Jonathan Parker, notes in his talk “The Art of Conversation,” there are three “paints” or parts to a conversation, asking questions, listening, and sharing. A good mentor should possess each of these attributes.
Connected – Does the person have enough history with you that they know the things that are important to you and understand your personality, strengths, and quirks? In a different sense, you may want someone connected to an industry, company, or discipline that you want to enter.
Experienced on the job – How diverse is the mentor’s experience across companies, verticals, and disciplines? Does she have good business sense in general? Can he see big-picture issues?
Other Traits to Consider
Specialization – Are you seeking to build knowledge in a particular business domain? If so, how knowledgeable is the mentor in the discipline and sub-discipline you are interested in learning? Human resources, for example, is a vast field, with many technically distinct specialties like compensation, employee relations, benefits, and performance management, to name a few. How well versed is the person in the area in which you want to grow?
Experienced in life – Do they have life experience that may be valuable to you, and are they near enough to that experience to give competent counsel? For example, if you’re a working mother returning to the workforce for the first time, you might want advice on how to balance your new baby and your job. Another working mom a few years ahead of you may have better insight than one with teenagers.
On a desirable career path – Does the person have a work history and career trajectory that you want to emulate to some degree?
Possessing appropriate interests and background – Depending on your goals, you might seek a mentor with similar or divergent interests and experiences.
No one mentor will score a 10 for every trait. However, you can use our mentor scorecard to produce a weighted ranking your top candidates based on the qualities most important to you.
Asking your mentor the following questions will help you better define the relationship and set expectations.
- What are you looking to get out of our mentoring relationship? Your mentor has individual needs you must meet for the experience to be valuable to him or her.
- What do you expect from me? You always want to meet or exceed your mentor’s expectations if you want the relationship to continue long term.
- What motivates you? Understanding your mentor will help you build a better connection and relationship.
- How can I make your life easier? Find out what you can contribute to make this mentorship work.
- What do you wish you knew when you were at my professional stage? Ask this classic question of any potential mentor.
- What are your guiding principles? You want to understand your mentor as a businessperson and an individual.
- What was difficult in your career path? You want to focus on more than how he or she became successful. You can learn a lot from failures and setbacks.
- What was your biggest weakness, and how did you overcome it? Hopefully, your mentor will answer you honestly. You can discover if he or she takes your mentorship seriously by their answer.
- What do I need to stop doing today? Just as important as learning what you should do is uncovering what you shouldn’t.
- What would you do differently? Your purpose is to find if the mentor can inspire you to think and act differently.
Ideally, you should be mentoring anyone who reports to you, at least informally, but beyond your team, think about whether you can and to whom you could act as a mentor. For example, check to see if your college invites alumni to mentor recent graduates. You might also consider a community-based organization, such as the local junior high or high school, that brokers mentoring relationships. The Small Business Association offers programs to connect successful business people with up-and-comers who desire mentorship.
At other times, potential mentees will actively seek you out. Additionally, you may find yourself naturally drawn to some individuals with whom you share an affinity. Regardless of how you find each other, your decision to be a mentor is just as important as selecting one and merits substantial consideration.
Addressing hard questions
If a potential mentee asks you questions about the challenges and hardships you faced on your way to your current position, that signals a willingness to learn from your experiences.
A mentorship isn’t just about one person admiring or emulating another. Instead, it is about the good, the bad, and the ugly of making it through life. Mentoring is unlike any other business relationship you create. It requires vulnerability and a willingness to have an authentic conversation. Your mentees will expect you to talk about the most trying, difficult times in your career—your failures. If you’re uncomfortable talking about your past, discussing failures and setbacks will seem hard at first. The deeper a connection you create with your mentee, the easier it becomes. One thing you can’t do is avoid your negative experiences. Anyone you mentor needs to learn and grow from both successes and failures.
Willingness and availability
Mentorship can be a life-long commitment. While it doesn’t have to be a daily obligation, there will be times when your mentee needs you more than others. Along with the pleas for advice, there may be weddings, birthday parties, and other events you’re expected to attend. When deciding whether to be a mentor, if you’ve been privileged of receiving mentorship, remember how meaningful that relationship was to you. If you’re ready to be that for someone else, by all means, forge ahead.
When you teach someone else the valuable lessons you’ve learned or share your knowledge on a particular subject, you become a master on that subject. Mentoring can help you understand and refine your leadership skills and your thoughts and opinions on business matters. Your career can excel when your mentor someone because you’ll work hard to live up to their expectations.
Not only will you help build the leaders of tomorrow, but you’ll gain the deep reward of helping someone else. This intrinsic reward can be powerful; mentoring forces you to learn and evolve. The reality is that mentoring will change you both for the better.
Finding a good mentor or two can accelerate your career trajectory, putting you ahead of the game. Mentoring others is a way to pay it forward for those climbing the ladder of success behind you and can be just as rewarding. Mentorship is ultimately about a deep and satisfying relationship with another professional in which you are both challenged to learn and grow.
Finally, being a trusted professional advisor can be as vital to your career as your family and friends are to your personal life. Indeed, mentors and mentees may become cherished friends over time. Choose them wisely and enjoy the additional dimensions they will bring into your life.