One of the most undervalued but beneficial resources any professional can have during their career is a mentor. In an increasingly competitive world of work, a combination of emotional intelligence, a refined skill set, and a great network will drive your career’s growth trajectory.
If you speak with any accomplished (senior) professional, the last piece of that puzzle is having a mentor. In your path to success, it’s important to have guidance and positive encouragement from someone who has been there and done that.
Harvard Business School’s Thomas DeLong wrote, “Everyone we spoke with over age 40 could name a mentor in his or her professional life, but younger people often could not.” Before you can reap the benefits of a trusted advisor, you have to find one. To kick off your search, here are six strategies for finding a career-defining mentor:
1. Unearth hidden gems in your current network
Start with your closest friends at work who have an understanding of you professionally and personally. The motto “If you don’t ask, you shall never receive” could not be more true. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Ask your colleagues to recommend former coworkers or friends who may be a great fit for you (as a mentor).
Additionally, reaching out to your friends who work in a similar industry can prove to be fruitful on multiple fronts. Let them know where you are mentally and what you are looking to gain from a mentor in your corner. Once they suggest a few names, research them through their LinkedIn profiles to get a better sense of their career trajectory before you reach out.
2. Remember your (professional) heritage
You may not be at your previous employer for a variety of reasons. But there may be an opportunity you’re missing out on by overlooking this option. Think back to some of the managers you enjoyed conversing with and have shared values.
Consider reaching out to them to connect further (be flexible: coffee, lunch, or a quick Zoom call) and catch up. In some cases, managers who worked in a cross-functional team could be ideal too. Your mentor doesn’t have to be in your direct line of work for the relationship to be mutually beneficial.
Building a relationship with someone whose opinion you trust is rooted more deeply in them understanding your ambitions and having a strong sense of leadership. This can help guide your decision-making at crucial points of your career.
3. Network strategically
This mentor acquisition strategy, although effective, may take longer to materialize. That’s because you have to build the initial relationship before you establish a “formal” mentor relationship.
Also, not all industry events attract high-caliber professionals you’ll want to connect with. So be strategic about which ones you attend. If you choose to invest time into an event, make sure you are stepping out of your comfort zone. Connect with new faces and ask insightful questions to spark great conversation and help you learn about their experiences. You may find your mentor in the most unexpected place, so don’t discount anyone before learning more about them.
Related: Job Searching? Online Networking Strategies to Get you Started
4. Don’t overlook your peers
Depending on where you are in your career, it’s valuable to consider colleagues as mentors. We all have different experiences and learnings based on how we got to where we are, so there may be learning opportunities for both of you.
5. Aspire to learn from differences
Intuitively, we are attracted to what we are most familiar with. When you’re looking for a mentor, be open to connecting with someone who may not have the same personality or approach as you.
The differences between the both of you can lead to you learning so much more about yourself and vice versa. There isn’t just one path to success and it’s important to gain wisdom from various sources.
Although differences can add more to the mentor relationship, honesty, integrity, and great listening skills are must-haves.
6. Know your value as a mentee
One of the biggest misconceptions around mentorship is that you are just seeking someone to help you achieve your goals. A mentorship is a dynamic relationship that involves both sides providing value and feedback to each other.
Of course, more experienced individuals can contribute in a different capacity but your perceived lack of experience does not exclude you. You’d be surprised by how your mentor can learn from your experiences!
Top traits of a great mentor
So when you use those tips to go about looking for your mentor, which specific traits should you seek in them? Guest contributor Ted Jaffe shares his recommendations.
1. Give honest and constructive feedback
Great mentors will always tell you when you’re doing something well – and when and how you need to improve. Constructive feedback is the key to an impactful mentorship. It’s what truly helps you learn and grow. You’ll learn more from your failures than your accomplishments.
It’s important to identify a mentor who conveys feedback in a way that’s constructive for you. You need a consistent, trustworthy source to tell you where you can improve – and more importantly how to improve for next time.
Even as a senior product manager, I get a lot of constructive feedback from my mentors at work. This includes how I communicate a rollout plan, use data to make important product decisions, or how a presentation I delivered to the executive team could have gone better. I know my best mentors are the ones who are:
Taking notes on my work
Thinking carefully about how I performed
Telling me how I did and what areas I should focus on improving
2. Motivate you to do your best work possible
Mentors are people you look up to. They motivate you to work harder and put time and attention into your work, which will ultimately make you successful.
If it weren’t for mentors encouraging me to grow and develop my skills, I would not be able to accomplish what I have thus far in my career. For example, when I was building a plan to revamp our app onboarding process, I faced many obstacles and differing opinions across stakeholders. This made progress extremely difficult. I had to keep the scope reasonable and stick to a predetermined deadline.
My mentors helped me frame my presentation and proposal in a way that helped me move forward and set scope boundaries. They also ensured we delivered a product all stakeholders could fully support. While it may sound manageable, in practice it was extremely difficult. Many times I wanted to give up. My mentors kept me motivated throughout the process and ultimately helped me deliver a great result for the company and product.
3. Highly skilled in their area of expertise
Your mentors should have a track record of success. You can look at their LinkedIn profile and draw inspiration from their career trajectory and growth. You should expect a great mentor to share their learnings and stories with you when you ask them about it.
At the beginning of my career, I developed relationships with senior directors at both Symantec and RingCentral. Over time, as I delivered value for them by doing great work and helping them accomplish their goals, they rewarded me with mentorship. They talked me through their own career stories and how they developed themselves through skill and experience.
These stories ultimately gave me a North Star that I used to inform my own career path.
4. Want to see you succeed in your career goals
Your mentors should be your biggest fans. They should cheer you on from the sidelines as you focus and execute your career goals.
They should have a genuine interest in helping you succeed beyond what’s in it for themselves. You will be able to sense this as you share your progress in your career journey.
Throughout my early career, I established a regular 1:1 meeting cadence with my mentors so I could brief them on how I was doing. If I was doing well, we would discuss why. If I was struggling, we would discuss how I should turn it around and get back on track. These conversations may be rare, but when they occur they’re extremely valuable.
Originally published January 2017. Updated February 2024. More