When I learned that January is National Mentoring Month, I paused to reflect on all the mentors and mentees I’ve been fortunate enough to know throughout my career. As I thought about which relationships were the most successful and fulfilling, I realized they had one thing in common: the more work put into them, the more successful they were. Finding a mentor is not something you hastily check off to advance your career. You are building a relationship, not making a transaction. Selecting a mentor should be a thoughtful, reflective, and intentional process (“process” being the key word).
A mentor is not just an advisor and teacher, but also an ally, an advocate, and even a confidante and friend. While a gleaming resume and a long list of accolades are impressive, you need to look beyond them to select the right mentor for you. With that in mind, here is how to get started.
Figure out what you want out of this relationship.
What really matters to you? What does success look like, not to everyone else, but to you? Where do you want your career to be in a year? In five years? What will it take to get there? And critically, who do you need in your corner? Answering those questions will help you define what a successful mentor/mentee relationship looks like for you.
If you aren’t honest with yourself about what you want to achieve with a mentor (and your career), you will waste time and energy and may even find yourself on a path that isn’t serving you. It’s perfectly normal to have some uncertainty about what you want to accomplish with your life and career. And it’s okay, good even, for your goals to shift and evolve as you do. But if you don’t have a vision of your future, the advice you get will be just as empty and unhelpful. You don’t need a finished painting to begin seeking a mentor, but you do need a good sketch.
Find a champion with similar values and more experience.
A mentor must, above all else, believe in you and your goals. Having a mentor who has been where you are, understands the challenges ahead, and has already navigated over, around, and under them will make a world of difference. Your mentor should share your values and be just as fiercely committed to them. If you aren’t aligned when it comes to your career aspirations and the steps you intend to take along the way, you risk getting the wrong advice (even from a well-intentioned mentor). The same is true for you as well by the way; you need a mentor that you believe in!
Your mentor doesn’t have to be the CEO.
While it may be tempting to seek the most senior, powerful person in the room, be flexible and consider other options. If the CEO wants to take you on—and has the time to do so—don’t pass it up! Access to that level of insight is invaluable and career changing. But if the CEO isn’t an option, don’t write off mentorship altogether.
Consider mentors who can grow along with you. Don’t think about this relationship as a stepping stone, but instead as a career-long partnership where you can learn and rise in the ranks together. If you’re just beginning your career, consider your manager, former professors, senior colleagues, and even past bosses. It may not open the same doors as being under the CEO’s wing, but a narrower experience gap can forge incredibly strong, fruitful allyships. After all, you never know who may go on to become tomorrow’s CEO.
Je ne sais quoi.
You need a mentor who gets you. Someone with whom you enjoy spending time, whose words inspire you, and whose friendship energizes you. It’s that ineffable “it” factor of finding someone you just click with. You need someone with a communication style that matches your own, who can really listen and provide honest, constructive feedback. In other words, you need to be simpatico.
Do your homework.
Look closely at their career trajectory—does it align with your vision for your own? Do they have the experience necessary to guide you? If everything looks right on paper, get to know your potential mentors as people, whether over coffee or even Zoom. Immediately after these informal meetups, write down your impressions. Were they a good listener? Did they provide honest, beneficial feedback? Did you learn anything? Crucially, are they interested in taking on a mentor, and do they have the necessary time and bandwidth?
Building your career is not an overnight endeavor (that’s kind of the whole point). So when it comes to making pivotal decisions, like choosing a mentor, take the time you need to get it right. While you’re always free to find a different mentor, and every successful career will likely include many of them, it’s important to be judicious about the professional relationships you forge and in whom you place your time, energy, and trust. Fear not though—if you put in the work, your efforts will be rewarded with invaluable relationships and a fulfilling career.
You have the tools you need, so go build your dream!