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When I was just starting on my leadership journey, I needed good people to push me to do great things (and stop me from doing stupid things). In the sense that learning never stops, that’s still true.
Because my firsthand experience with mentors has been so valuable, I advocate hard for others to find people who can guide them — regardless of whether they’re new to the game or have seen a few seasons. Knowing some specific criteria to look for in a mentor can make your search a lot easier.
1. The ability to teach you in a realistic, relevant way
I love legendary basketball player Larry Bird. There’s arguably nobody better to show someone how to perform well on the court. But if I went out as a 23-year-old business professional and got him as a mentor, he’d probably look at me, scratch his head at my suit and ask, “So, what am I going to teach you?”
People can have incredible skills that can make them seem like gods to you. But sometimes, what someone else has done in their career really isn’t a good fit for the kind of career you actually want to have.
Be grounded. Find someone who has walked the type of journey you want to walk, whether that’s within your own company or elsewhere. Look at their LinkedIn profile — see how they started and worked their way up. The closer their experience is to what you’d like to learn and do, the better mentor-mentee match you’ll probably have.
This idea of relevance extends beyond your field. If a potential mentor can’t relate to you because of their age, gender or other elements, it doesn’t mean they’re not a great professional. It just means they might not connect with or inspire you in the way that you need.
2. Good connections
Not too long ago, someone was open with me about what they wanted to do. I had them go on LinkedIn and find five people who had a career they’d like to have (see above).
I reached out on their behalf and was able to get the person I was mentoring a 30-minute Zoom meeting with one of the people on their mentoring wish list. All my mentee needed was someone who could link them up with the person whose career they admired.
So when you’re considering potential mentors, think about who you know that might be able to reach out and advocate for you.
3. Appropriate distribution of time
A solid mentor track record doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has mentored many people. It means that they’ve consistently invested time in their mentees and that the mentees have been able to move forward because of that investment. They’re sitting down once per week, month or whatever works with the mentees and asking what’s on their minds. They are genuinely able to respond to the reasonable requests that their mentees have.
Good mentors also should be able to give you homework assignments. If the mentor hasn’t mentored a lot and doesn’t realize you need this, it’s okay for you to ask them for some beneficial things you can do before your next meeting.
Related: The Importance of Mentors
Ask them if there are any podcasts, books, articles or other materials you should be looking into, and try to get a sense of how they see the world. Their answer — or lack of one — will clue you in about whether they’re active enough in your field or career space to help.
Regardless of whether a mentor can come up with homework assignments on the fly or needs a little push to think about them, be willing to invest more time than your mentor does. One of my favorite books is The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. If I recommend that book to you and you haven’t read it in a month or two, that’d be a big yellow flag to me. I’d probably question why I was staying late after work to meet with you if you didn’t step up to the plate and take the advice that I gave you.
Mentors don’t want or expect you to be a doormat, but they will expect you to put in real effort and have your priorities straight. Don’t get a mentor just because somebody told you that you should have one. Get a mentor because you’re willing to invest in them and your own success.
Once you have the right person, get serious and own it
I’ve been fortunate enough to have had five mentors, all of whom were different in how they worked with me and what I was able to learn. I’ve observed and practiced what they do — like heeding the advice of a great presenter I admire to become a better speaker. However many successes I have had in my professional life, the majority would not have occurred without my mentors.
My experience has shown me just how much others can share to help others grow, but I’ve also learned that there’s nothing better than digging in on tough projects next to someone who really knows their stuff.
Remember: Talent might come naturally, but skills are things you have to work at and spend your time on. Find the right person who’s willing to go it alongside you in that work. From there, embrace more difficult tasks and own them.