How to find a great mentor

So many possibilities, but which one should you pursue?

Mentorship can be an elusive thing. When it fails, you start looking for the fastest means of exiting the room. But, when it works, it can be life changing. The right mentor can point you in a good direction, call you on your bullshit, and maybe even help open a few doors.

Officehours makes the first part easy. Sessions only last ten minutes, so, if you’re connected with a bozo, you only have to endure him/her for another few minutes. Finding a great one? That’s harder—because you’re looking for a kind of spark. Here are some tips for maximizing your chances:

Define your needs/expectations

Before asking for help, clarify what you need help with. This could be a long list—and these matters tend to change over time. Don’t worry about that too much, though. Instead, try this simple exercise: Identify 3 things that are getting in your way. Then, write 3 questions for each. This won’t form a definitive list, but it does give you something to work from.

Then, start searching for someone who can help you answer these questions. Those you find might ask you to rethink your questions. This is OK. The purpose of this exercise is to define what’s limiting you. It’s a way to get you to a starting point. After that, change is part of the deal.

Start small

Imagine someone asking to marry you, before even going on a date. My hunch is that you’d find such behavior slightly concerning. Nevertheless, it’s what a lot of folks do in their professional pursuits. They force conversations at networking events. They expect customers’ trust from the first meeting. And they ask people they hardly know to be their mentors.

This is no small ask. A responsible mentor takes significant time out of his/her life to provide guidance. Odds are he/she won’t do this for more than one person at a time. So, why not start a little smaller? Request a brief meeting, ask some questions, and determine whether there’s a fit. If there is, you can ask for another. And, from that point, something lasting might happen. Don’t go in expecting this, though.

Prioritize experience

It’s easy to get fooled by an impressive name. I’ve fallen for this in the past: the person who’s worked as an SVP at major brands—but turns out to not know that much. (It’s surprising how many people can leverage opportunities just by landing one good title.) Conversely, some folks are highly experienced but work in less-known organizations.

My point? There are more people out there with experience than there are superstars. So, open your search to some less-familiar names. Then, concentrate on what they know and what they’ve done—instead of any claims to fame. You might stumble upon an advisor with lots to offer—who no one else even bothered to ask.

Ask who they learn from

Be wary of those who think they have all the answers. Good mentors gain insight by continually turning over rocks, challenging assumptions, and asking questions. Conversely, those who think they’ve “arrived” are often trapped by their own egos. This leaves them inelastic and gets in the way of their ongoing learning. (If you’re too smart/important to ask questions, you end up standing still.)

One way to find out if a potential mentor/advisor is committed to ongoing learning is to ask who he/she last asked for advice. If the answer is “no one,” you might benefit by continuing your search. Remember that a good mentor can serve as a conduit for new discoveries. The best ones will turn you on to new people, books, and ideas. And they’ll enjoy sharing these discoveries with you.

Look beyond your field

Most vocations have their own cultures, customs, and characteristics. This is great, because these attributes help establish common ground. Unfortunately, these commonalities can also be limiting: because like people tend to see things in like terms. This can be a problem. For example, if you’re a designer who only talks to other designers, your thinking might become limited to minutiae.

By learning from those outside of your industry, you access broader insights. Someone in sales might help you understand that color choice isn’t as important as understanding a customer’s journey. Sure, reaching out to people you don’t have much in common with might feel intimidating. That said, discomfort is often representative of new learning.

So, how did I do? Are the above points useful? Have I missed something? If you think I have, email me and tell me so. I’m happy to add to add your ideas to the above list. Alternately, request a session and we can talk on Officehours.