Finding — and successfully connecting with — a mentor is a frustrating experience for people who are searching for someone to provide guidance, proffer wisdom, open doors and course-correct them when they veer off track.
What I learned, especially in my entrepreneurial years, is that the first step is to check one’s own expectations and instincts. More than 10 years after my early mentorship experiences, I feel savvy enough to understand what a work adviser does and doesn’t do — especially since now, as a two-time founder, I’ve been on both sides of the mentor/mentee dynamic.
Some common misconceptions tend to guide would-be mentees in their search for a work guru. My advice: Stop looking for what you think a mentor should look like, and you will be more likely to find what you need.
1. “Mentor” is not its own relationship category.
A mentor is someone who knows more than you or has done more than you or has experiences from which you can learn. A mentor is not someone upon whom you need to formally confer the title “mentor” to begin a relationship. Don’t require a purity test to confirm the mentor/mentee arrangement. Advisory relationships work when they happen naturally, and they fail when forced. Forget the labels: Absorb wisdom from brilliant people in whatever form it comes.
Karina Castagna, an executive at Amgen, a board president of the Healthcare Women’s Association and board member at Ventura County Food Share, has mentored dozens of women. She says the mentees who benefit most are the ones with substantive questions, who aren’t as concerned about defining the relationship — which puts pressure on the mentor.
2. Your mentor is not your ‘ride-or-die.’
Too many people end up disappointed when they realize their mentor has set limits and does not want to take on risk. A longtime mentor of mine encouraged me for years to start a business, saying he’d love to help if I ever did. When I launched my company in 2015, I asked him to serve as an adviser and/or investor, and he (graciously and promptly) excused himself from both scenarios.
The experience taught me that even strong relationships have boundaries. But just because your mentor is probably not willing to circumnavigate the Ninth Circle of Hell with you doesn’t invalidate the relationship. Mine shared valuable advice and insight into the world of prestigious MBA programs and companies that I would not have had access to on my own at the time. They’re still rooting for you — just from the stands.
3. Your mentor cannot address all aspects of life.
A mentor should have knowledge to share: advice on certain experiences, personal stories relevant to yours or ways of thinking that can influence your decision-making and problem-solving. But rarely will a mentor be your confidante, emotional support system, knowledge base, brainstorm partner and guidance counselor all at once. Choose one.
Castagna says building a personal friendship can enrich a mentorship dynamic. But, she clarifies: “It is important for the mentee to prioritize discussing tactical and tangible issues the mentor can help solve. Inviting their mentor to a birthday party may feel less daunting to some people than making a professional ask, but I prefer the direct approach as it allows me to create the most value for my mentees.”
4. Creating opportunities for you is not your mentor’s job.
Unless your mentor is a supervisor or someone senior in your organization, the expectation that they will make introductions and open doors is a romantic — but misguided — one. Instead, mentors prefer empowering their mentees to carve out their own opportunities.
Stephanie Gay, a vice president at change-management, learning and development firm Intellezy, recalls a consulting mentee who requested an introduction to an industry executive. Gay knew her mentee did not yet have the confidence to impress this exec in the 30 seconds she would be given.
“Instead of making an introduction right away for a single shot that probably wouldn’t go well, I instructed my mentee on effective outreach, positioning her strengths in emails, and finding common ground with a target contact so that she could get herself in the door,” she says. “She mastered these skills and lined up a half-dozen meetings for herself — way more than any mentor could have done for her.”
Occasionally, a mentor will provide access to their contacts, but in the meantime, take their guidance and try learning to fish. Chances are, as soon as you learn and don’t need it anymore, that’s when said intro might just be forthcoming.
5. A mentor will not deliver for you until you prove worthy.
You are not worthy of mentorship just because you decide so. Mentorship is a two-way street, and a mentor wants to grow with her mentee. Fact: A mentor needs to gain something from the interaction, whether it’s a vicarious experience of exciting new projects, the fulfillment of developing a new leader, or the gratification of redeploying knowledge and experience in a new way.
A great mentor simply won’t be interested in allocating time and energy to a protégé who isn’t demonstrating growth potential, interesting work possibilities and the promise of a fun ride ahead. As Sheryl Sandberg suggests: “Shift your thinking from, ‘If I get a mentor, I will excel’ to, ‘If I excel, I will get a mentor.’”
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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