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What’s a Mentor (and How Do You Get One)?

Topics: Career Advice
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You need a mentor. At least, that’s what you’re always hearing, right? But what is a mentor? And how do you get one?

In your career, sometimes it would be nice to have some sort of guide or sounding board, to get advice from or simply to talk to as a neutral third party. While it can be cathartic to vent to coworkers or a partner about some work issue, having a real professional mentor (or mentors) to advise you is even better.

But what is a mentor? And how do you get one? We talked to a few folks who have been mentors or who have used mentors to see what the benefits (and pitfalls) can be like.

What Does a Mentor Do (and What Do Mentees Get Out of It)?

Mentoring is a sign that you’re invested in someone’s professional trajectory, says Veronica Arreola, Director, Latin@s Gaining Access to Networks for Advancement in Science program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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“Being a mentor means…I’m available to them for advise, direction, and an ear to just listen,” Arreola says. “That’s far more than being a reference.”

Arreola isn’t just a mentor, she also has mentors of her own. She knows first hand just how valuable that relationship can be.

“What makes mentoring good is when everyone wins,” she said. “One initiative the office I manage does is peer mentoring. We often talk to the mentors about getting a lot out of the relationship too, if not more. When I’m in mentor mode, I am far more present and mindful of the big picture because I’m thinking about someone else. But that mindfulness often bleeds into my own work, so it reminds me to stop and assess where I am, how I can work smarter, and keep moving forward. What is challenging is actually reaching out to my mentors on a regular basis! As a mentor, I’m always open to hearing from my mentees…but as a mentee, I still have a hard time reaching out. Which means I should set that lunch date I’ve been meaning to have with one of my mentors!”

When Do You Know You Need a Mentor?

It was a particular time in her career when Eva Penar, Director of Marketing and Communications at The Chicago Community Trust sought out a mentor.

“I found myself searching for opportunities to enhance my career,” Penar said. “Do I take a certificate course, apply for a fellowship, etc.? I thought it was wise to speak to a few individuals and have them brainstorm with me.”

What she found, however, was a need to create her own personal “board” of mentors, each addressing different areas she could use advice on. Penar has written about this idea of building a board for yourself, and she says it’s a great way to bring a lot of voices to the table, and also adjust your team as your career evolves.

“It is important to have a good mix of champions and mentors in that group,” Penar wrote. “A mentor is someone who talks to you, giving you advice and guidance. A champion is someone who talks about you, sharing and promoting your successes with the masses.”

“People rotate in and out [of my board] depending on their expertise and the topic at hand,” she shared. “I find myself learning from people that aren’t in my industry. I didn’t have a business owner in my group and her perspective is different then those working on teams and for a corporation. I also included a personal coach whom I hired that looks at everything in a holistic approach.”

Where Do You Look For a Mentor?

While it’s easy to ask a colleague (they’re right over there, after all), you probably should start looking for mentors outside your workplace. Penar suggests that looking for a mentor in your own office isn’t be best idea, especially if they cannot be discrete or impartial.

“A mentorship should be private because otherwise it can create a certain dynamic at work that you may not want,” Penar said.

After her first experience with a colleague as a mentor that didn’t work out, she realized she needed champions and mentors outside the workplace, and she started to pull together her personal board.

Sometimes a good mentor can be someone who is a past colleague or boss, says Brad Walker, Chef and General Manager at Brunswick & Hunt in Seattle, WA.

While a chef is a natural mentor to the new hires who enter the kitchen, they also can still teach things and be good mentors to past employees too, even after they move on.

“I’m still in touch with the better chefs I worked for, and they are still teaching me things,” Walker said. “As a chef, you’re automatically in a system of mentorship from your first day on the job. Sure, there’s cooking school, but it is woefully inadequate for preparing one for the day-to-day of this life. Picking where you work is the most important decision you can make. I.e. who will be a mentor, at least for your time at this particular position. I was lucky/chose well.”

To find a mentor of your own, Arreola suggests starting with an informal conversation about whatever concerns you, but maybe not blurting out the “m word” first thing.

“I often recommend people to start by asking for informational meetings first,” Arreola said. “See how the potential mentor reacts to that. Are they open? Willing? Or does your ask seem like a burden? After the informational meeting, assess if you feel like you want to be a long-term relationship with the person. Then follow up with ‘It was great talking to you, would it be ok if I contact you again?’ I rarely suggest asking, ‘Will you be my mentor?,’ but rather if people are more open to being called on now and then.”


Are you looking for a mentor, or do you advise someone currently? How did you get started? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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