What Should You Look for in a Mentor?

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Mentors can be extremely useful in your career development. But how do you know what to look for in a mentor? And what exactly do you do with one? Here are some suggestions for making the most of a mentoring relationship.

1. Define your goals.

To make a mentoring relationship useful, you must first know why you want one. Do you hope to broaden your business knowledge? Better understand the organization’s culture? Get some guidance on your career? Develop specific skills? As with every other area of life, you must know where you’re going before you can decide how to get there.

2. Don’t limit yourself to one person.

People talk about “having a mentor” as though there is one magical person who can guide you towards guaranteed career success. In reality, however, you can learn from many different people in many different ways. Remain open to developing learning relationships with a variety of colleagues.

3. Consider their reputation.

You want mentors who are well-regarded in your organization. A mentor who is respected and admired can also serve as a career sponsor when opportunities arise. Their recommendation can help you be considered for promotion or placed on desirable projects.

4. Beware of “empty suits”.

Executives whose careers have been sidelined often have lots of time. They may be all too glad to fill their empty hours by providing you with useless or erroneous information. So be careful – just because someone has a nice office or fancy car, they are not necessarily a valuable advisor.

5. Expand your knowledge.

One reason to find a mentor is to gain additional knowledge of the business. This may mean learning about an unfamiliar function, such a finance or marketing. Or it may mean getting a broader view of the organization from someone at a higher level.

6. Develop your weaker side.

Another reason for a mentor is to develop skills or abilities that you do not naturally possess. If you are quiet and reserved, spend time with an outgoing extrovert. If you are a creative, big picture thinker, learn from someone who is good with data and details. Or vice versa.

7. Look for a role model.

Mentors can also help you learn specific skills. If you want to become an outstanding speaker, find a role model who already does this well. If you are a disaster at office politics, find someone who has mastered that art. Decide what skills you want to develop and seek out a mentor in that area.

8. Get career guidance.

When you want to move into a different field or department, the first step is to make contacts there. Do some informational interviewing to learn about the new area, then, if you happen to “click” with someone, ask if you can continue to consult with them about your career development.

9. Ask for honest feedback.

You want a mentor to help you learn and grow, not simply make you feel good. So look for someone who will provide an honest assessment of your strengths, challenges, and development needs.

10. Don’t make your boss feel threatened.

Remember that a mentor is an adviser, coach, or guide – but a mentor is not your manager. You don’t want your actual boss to be threatened by this relationship, especially if the person is higher up in the organization. So never use your mentor to contradict your manager – as in, “Well, that’s not what Bob says . . .” And never take an issue to your mentor that should more appropriately be discussed with your boss.

11. Know when it’s over.

Some mentoring relationships last quite awhile, but many others are time-limited. Once a specific goal has been accomplished, there may be no further need for interaction. As you grow in your career, some mentoring relationships may evolve into friendship or simple collegiality. At some point you may find that you have actually moved beyond your mentor, or you may be able to mentor them in some respects!