A good mentor can mean the difference between career success and stagnation, but there’s a caveat: even the most visionary leader won’t be much use to you, if the relationship isn’t right.
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“Some guy who made your friend successful might not be the right mentor for you,” writes Mihir Patkar at Lifehacker. “The mentor-protege relationship is unique. It requires two people who share values and a way of thinking, as well as respect each other, but one is in a position to guide the other.”
So how can you tell if you’ve set your sights on the best mentor for your needs, and develop a relationship that will boost your career?
1. He or she has to want to mentor someone.
Companies love to make mentorship a metric for emerging managers, but just because someone has to check off that box on their yearly review, doesn’t mean that his or her heart is in it. Some people enjoy teaching and helping people develop; some, for various reasons involving temperament and personal taste, do not. Heck, even Sheryl Sandberg flat-out advises working women not to ask female executives to mentor them. Don’t assume that your colleague is enthused.
2. You both need to be willing to learn how to communicate.
A recent study from UC San Francisco attempted analyzes the factors that go into creating a successful mentor-mentee relationship. One of their findings? Chemistry matters. Study co-author Mitchell D. Feldman cautions would-be mentees not to overlook the work involved in developing a rapport.
“…[C]ontrary to popular belief, chemistry can be created, by being actively present in the relationship and listening and reflecting back what you’ve heard,” Feldman says.
3. Patience is a virtue.
Good mentors are patient, supportive, and honest. In a perfect relationship, your mentor will tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to hear, in a way that you can process. That means that your mentor needs to give you time to hear and absorb what she’s saying, without being so impatient that you’re tempted to pretend you’ve got the gist.
4. Availability is important.
Speaking of time, your mentor should be able to make some. This is tricky, as obviously the very people you’d want guiding your career are the folks who already contend with packed schedules. Still, the most charismatic, successful, and supportive person in the world won’t be much help to you, if you can never get in touch with him.
5. Don’t overlook the people you already know.
“Finding a mentor isn’t always about looking for someone new; you might already have that person in your network without realizing it,” Patkar writes. “See if a relationship with these qualities already exists in your life and tap that instead of trying to start a new one.”
Best of all, by tapping a known quantity, you can skip the adjustment phase, and move on to actual learning.
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