What to look for in a mentor

In the first article of the mentoring series, Mentors, we talked about the value of having a network of mentors you can tap to better your personal and professional life. Now we will talk about what you should look for in a mentor.

There are many types of mentors. There are peer mentors, or mentors of equal status or rank, who exchange information or advice amongst each other. This type of mentoring relationship works on the basis of reciprocity. When actively pursuing this type of mentoring relationship, the most important factor is trust, both in terms of trustworthiness, and in terms of trusting the expertise or judgment of the perspective mentor. These types of mentors are often easiest to find, and the relationships are usually informal.

Information mentors are those whose role in the relationship is to provide information or advice, and in many cases to act as a teacher to the mentee. Many organizations have formal programs that connect new employees, or employees moving to new roles, with information mentors. This type of mentoring is very useful when you need to “learn the ropes,” so it is always advisable to find such a mentor when you are entering a new position. The key criteria for choosing an information mentor are the reliability and accuracy of the information being provided.

As odd as it may seem, you may find potential mentors amongst your company’s competitors. Known as competitor mentors, these individuals may work in a similar position to you, but in different companies or industries. The support, information and advice is usually expected to be reciprocal, and great care must be taken to maintain the validity of the relationship.

The final type of mentor discussed in this article is the retiree mentor. These individuals are highly experienced and possess significant institutional or industry knowledge. Additionally, the retiree mentor may pass along insights or “soft skills,” such as political awareness, influencing skills, and perspectives through the mentoring relationship.

Regardless of the type of mentor, it is important that you as the mentee understand what you would like to get out of the relationship, and what you have to offer. The specific criteria for your mentor choices should influence the characteristics you are looking for in a mentor, such as specific information, experience, wisdom, or something else.
There are some common characteristics that any mentor regardless of type or purpose should possess. After all, you will need to develop a working relationship with this person, and in some cases even personal friendships. Therefore it is important that the individuals you approach to be mentors have personality traits you are comfortable dealing with. Furthermore, as you will potentially be sharing sensitive conversations with your mentors, you should be able to trust them and their motives. They should be forthright and honest, even if what they have to say is not what you want to hear. And most importantly they should add insight and new ideas to your thinking. Mentors after all are meant to inspire and motivate. They are not usually meant to reinforce the status quo.

The mentoring model has changed over the years. In most cases it is no longer based on the traditional model of an older, wiser, battle scarred veteran taking a new kid under his wing to teach him or her untold secrets of success. The new model encourages development of multiple mentoring relationships, sometimes spanning across industries or job functions, where there is mutual benefit. Indeed, many of the older, wiser veterans are encouraged to take on younger mentors who may be more attuned to current modes of operation. After all, if a seasoned veterans like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Jack Welch have mentors, shouldn’t everybody?

Be sure and come back next week for the next installment in the series: Where to find a mentor

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