There are the obvious benefits of having a mentor - someone who shows you the ropes, helps with career planning and guidance, is there to offer advice when you encounter problems. But...
But if this is all your mentor provides for you, you might have what I call a "basic mentor." Finding a basic mentor, or any mentor for that matter, is not an easy task. Finding a great mentor, though? Flat out difficult.
Here are some signs that your mentor is more than basic.
5 TRAITS OF A GREAT MENTOR
1) THEY HELP YOU DISCOVER YOUR PROFESSIONAL STRENGTHS
If your mentor knows you well enough and happens to work in the same organization as you do, they should be able to observe you, your performance, and your impact. Over time, this gives them the advantage to pinpoint where you’ve made the biggest contribution, and guide you on how to hone in on those skill sets involved. Even if they don’t work in your office, they should regularly ask you the kinds of pointed, critical questions that force you to assess your own work and professional style. A great mentor won’t tell you what to do—they’ll help you think critically.
2) AND POINT YOU TOWARD CAREER RESOURCES THAT WILL CHALLENGE AND DEVELOP YOU
As a continuation of knowing your strength, a great mentor will regularly suggest how and where to find resources to develop yourself. Working on public speaking? “Try Toastmasters or Amy Cuddy’s latest book.” Need help with manipulating large amount of data that Excel can’t handle? “Look into Tableau.” Part of what makes a good mentor is the mentor’s own ability to keep up with technologies and latest resources for refining a trade and continuous self-improvement. Look for someone who’s eager and curious about their work and industry and who loves to share.
3) THEY’RE YOUR DEVIL'S ADVOCATE AND BIGGEST CHEERLEADER (AT THE SAME TIME)
One of the most valuable things a mentor can do with is to help you evaluate your options when you hit a “fork” in your career path and need to make a decision. A good mentor will help expand your thinking and make sure your thought processes cover as many aspects of your life, professional and personal, as possible. They’ll ask the toughest questions. And when you’ve made a decision, they will support you and cheer you on.
4) THEY GIVE YOU HONEST AND CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM
Receiving and giving criticism is an art form, to say the least. We all have cringe-worthy memories of giving or receiving criticism. If done well, though, it takes mentorship from good to great. This step requires a mutually trusting relationship between you and your mentor—it takes you being open and vulnerable, and your mentor being honest and tactful.
5) THEY GROW WITH YOU
This is probably the most difficult aspect to cultivate in a mentorship if it doesn’t spontaneously develop over time. The truth is that people change. We hear the same thing about romantic relationships, in which two partners have to be open and honest about the changes in their thinking, beliefs, strengths, and weaknesses. A good mentor has to be aware of your growth and his or her own growth. This means there may be a time, when your needs as a mentee evolve beyond their capacity as a mentor. Or there may also be a time when your mentor is taking on new challenges in their life, where you can reverse the roles and for you to offer up advice. Again, this takes a strong foundation in your relationship and a ton of trust. The goal here is to evolve with each other.
MY PERSONAL STORY
Why do I know all of this? It comes from years of having a great mentorship. This mentorship started with me being hired into my first job right after graduate school in 2011. That was the first time this mentorship changed my career—actually, it essentially started it! My mentor was my then boss and hiring manager. Two years into this job as a temp, after pushing mountains (i.e. a 6-month hiring freeze) for me, I was converted to a full-time employee. This was the second time my mentor “saved” me. And earlier this year, I was given the opportunity to take on a new role, and this opportunity was offered by the same mentor. In hindsight, if it wasn’t for this opportunity, it’s highly possible that I would’ve gotten laid off. Needless to say, I am extremely grateful.
HOW TO FIND YOUR OWN GREAT MENTOR
Much has been written on the topic of how to find a mentor (by Huffington Post, LinkedIn, and Refinery 29, to name a few), and they're certainly a great place to start. But you also have to consider why you want a mentor, and how having a mentor will change you and your career.
This brings me to a very critical component of mentorship—your effort. A great mentor goes out of their way to ensure the success of their mentee. But that relationship can only exist because the mentees seek and prepare. Like most things, the amount of energy you invest will contribute to what you actually get out of your mentorship. Without preparation and effort, mentorship devolves into a series of handshakes and stiff meetings—nothing more.
- If you’re on track with your career path, start with who you know. Do you have a more senior coworker who you admire or a boss? See if they’d grab a cup of coffee with you to discuss their own career.
- If you’re not sure where you want your career to go—consider informational interviews. They’re a great way to network and learn about an industry that interests you. [link to our informational interviews 101 piece]
- Attend networking events, then actually follow up with people who you found inspiring. See if they’ll meet you for a drink or coffee. If it’s a good fit, stay on top of communicating with them regularly.
- Try Career Contessa’s Hire a Mentor platform. This is kind of a cheat, but hey, there’s nothing wrong with finding a shortcut. You can pick the mentor that best fits your professional path and interests, then book a one-on-one session to kickstart a job search or plan some career goals.
(This article was published on Career Contessa on 9/5/2016)
I’d like to hear about your mentorship stories! Whether you are a mentor or a mentee, share away!