One of the surest routes to career success is to work with a wise and caring mentor. But the success of a mentoring relationship depends as much on your personal match as on his or her knowledge.
What should you look for when considering potential mentors?
Are they interested in you?
Choose a mentor who has at some previous point expressed an interest in you, and in your career. This may seem like a no-brainer, but often the person who may be most strategically valuable in terms of knowledge or connections simply doesn’t possess the people skills or interest to mentor you effectively. You need to work with someone with whom you can build a trusting relationship, so you feel safe asking questions and exposing areas of weakness or lack of knowledge.
Can they cheer for your successes?
Choose a mentor who has enough confidence in him or herself not to be jealous of your growth and success. Some people enjoying being mentors because it feeds their egos to have someone (often younger) asking them for advice and counsel, but then lose interest as their protégé begins to mature and succeed. If the mentoring relationship is based on egos or competition, it destroys trust and honesty.
Are they strong in the right ways?
Choose a mentor who has strengths in the areas where you feel you need to grow. For example, if you want to learn more about navigating corporate politics, choose someone who has spent years successfully building collaborative relationships and projects in a corporation rather than someone known as a brilliant entrepreneur but with less-than-effective communication skills.
Do they think you’re cool, rather than weird?
Choose a mentor who gets you. In his series of books leading off with First, Break All the Rules, co-author Marcus Buckingham makes the point that most managers are taught to help you fix your weaknesses rather than focus on and provide an environment for enhancing your strengths.
As a variation on this theme, a mentor’s job is not to change who you are, but to understand who you are and help you learn or devise ways to minimize the impact of your weaknesses and maximize that of your strengths. But this, of course, means it’s up to you to identify those potential mentors who will support both who you are and who you’re trying to become.
Are they open to lots of possibilities?
Choose a mentor who won’t have preconceived ideas about what path your career should take. The mentoring relationship should be one of exploration and possibility rather than one where your mentor “shoehorns” you into his or her idea of your perfect career path.
Do they match up with your growth interests?
Decide what kind of counsel you’d like from your mentor. Do you need someone to help you understand how to most effectively deal with a specific workplace issue, for example, how to transition into a new role within the company, or someone to help you grow your leadership skills? Or perhaps you need someone who has had a diverse career to help you think through your various career options? Once you have clearly in mind what your interests and goals are, your potential mentor will have a much better idea of whether he or she is the best person to help.
Do they have good people and communication skills?
One of the things a mentor needs to do is to gently tell you when you’re really off-base. Pretty much no one enjoys getting negative feedback, but a mentor with good communication skills should be able to provide truly constructive criticism without derailing your enthusiasm or confidence.
How big is their ego?
If you need to spend all of your time together praising the brilliance of your mentor, there won’t be a lot of time left over to discuss you own questions. The best kind of mentor is self-confident but not self-impressed; they take their work seriously, but not themselves. This type of individual is comfortable structuring the relationship around your issues, rather than their own.
Have they mentored other individuals?
If so, how did that go? It’s a great idea to “interview” each other before making a commitment to a mentoring relationship, and one of the things you want to do during that interview is to ask them about their previous mentoring relationships. Are they still friends with their former mentees? Do they speak highly of them and the work they did together? Did those relationships wrap up in a positive way?
Might several mentors serve your needs better than one?
For example, you may have one co-worker who is especially adept at gender communication issues, a higher-up who is known for his project management skills, or someone not in your organization who is an effective leader in multiple environments. Each of these individuals can be mentors to you in specific areas if they are willing and interested, and each will be able to address a different area of expertise and professional growth with you.
Landing a good mentor match-up is a bit like dating – it may take a few tries before you land the right one. But these questions should help you quickly determine whether you’re both on the right track.