How to pick a mentor

I would not be where I am today if it were not for a few key people who took time out of their busy schedules to help me in my career. Some of them helped me when I wasn’t even sure I needed help. Some helped when I knew I needed it. I would guess that most of them had a deep seated–almost sacred–calling to grow and develop others. They did not do it to help themselves or further their career.

In a world where we are obsessed with “what’s in it for me” mentorship is clearly different stuff. Sure there are the much touted “teach a man to fish” or succession planning benefits. While these benefits probably exist, I know intuitively when someone is taking a fake interest in me. Humans can sniff out disingenuous motives like BO in a movie theatre. If people are changing jobs every 2-4 years, the motive for developing someone need to come from a long term intrinsic motive to help others, because you find joy in this. Or else it’s easy to be disheartened with developing others when the person you mentored leaves for another company.

A couple of years ago HBR published an article about gender imbalances in top jobs at corporations. They discovered the missing ingredient was not mentorship, or coaching, but sponsorship. This means someone who is not trying to improve you, but someone who will advocate for you when you are not there. Who is your advocate?

So when you are looking to grow or learn something new in your career, it is important to pick the right mentor. But how do you go about it? It’s a bit like dating. You want someone you respect, someone you trust and someone who likes you back.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Who is doing what I want to do? Maybe 5 years from now.
  • Who shows an interest in you? Who listens to you?
  • Who do you respect? Who inspires you?
  • Who has a record of following through on little commitments (showing up to meetings on time, doing what they said they would do?)

Make a list of four or five people.

Next, you need to see if they are interested and available to mentor you. This is a bit like asking someone out on a date. Most successful people are more than happy to help out someone else. But they may not be aware you have this desire. The thing I’ve done usually is take them out for dinner and ask them to tell me about how they have gotten where they are. Be curious. Ask what books they read. Ask who mentored them. Be natural and friendly, as an equal not a subordinate. Then when they give you a suggestion, like read this book or talk to this person, follow up and schedule a meeting to share what you have learned.

How about you? Who has mentored you? How did you end up in that mentor/mentee relationship?

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