What You Need To Know About Finding (And Keeping) A Mentor

Look at anyone who’s at the top of their game; whether they’ve risen to the top in their company, founded a business, become a successful athlete, or a champion Scrabble player, most success stories couldn’t have happened without a bit of outside help.

As much as it might seem that Venus and Serena were just born hitting 200kmph serves – and as convenient it may be to believe that successful people just have the X-Factor that mere mortals are missing – very few people achieve real success without specific, focused attention and advice from a mentor who’s been there before.

If you’re at a stage in your career where you’re wondering what your next move is, how to get better and what you’re doing, or if you’re just plain ambitious, here’s what you need to know about getting a mentor and getting the most out of the relationship.

Finding a mentor

Mentors turn up in all kinds of places – they might be a manager or a colleague, someone you meet at a networking event, a former teacher. You can even seek people out and pay them for their mentorship (although most mentors are happy to do it for free).

Sydney entrepreneur Adam Long took a proactive approach to getting a mentor when he felt dissatisfied in his job. “I was in my first job out of university, a graduate job with a government department. I was a fish out of water working for the government, so I reached out to Danny Almagor, founder of Engineers Without Borders Australia and Small Giants, asking him to be a mentor. I’d volunteered with Engineers Without Borders over several years, so I’d already had several opportunities to work with him.”

A mentor might even pick you. Lynn Bailey is an HR consultant who has taken on many mentees over her career, saying, “I’ve either been recommended or when I work with a team, I identify someone who I think would benefit.”

How to approach the mentoring relationship

So, you’ve got a shiny new mentor, but then what do you do?

Adam took a very structured approach. “I was in Canberra and he was in Melbourne, so I’d take a day off work once a month and fly down to Canberra to spend a few hours shadowing him and discussing career plan, purpose and – because I wanted to be an entrepreneur – business ideas.”

“It’s important to build a good relationship,” says Lynn. And the best thing to help you do that, from a mentor’s perspective? “Someone who listens. It’s difficult to help if you don’t get to the core of the problem. It takes time to build trust on both sides. A mentor gives you ideas to try out, then you come back and discuss if they worked or not.” Whatever you do, don’t be that mentee that thinks they know better, literally the whole point of the relationship is to learn from someone with experience.

Remember it’s a two-way street

It’s all very well to have a monthly phone call where you chat about your job, but you should remember that you need to put in the hard yakka to make it worthwhile for your mentor.

Adam’s mentor ended up getting a surprising return on his mentoring investment. “At one of the mentoring sessions focused on new business ideas, I proposed a business idea involving 3D printing and laser cutting for custom manufacturing. Danny loved it, suggesting he’d invest if I wrote a good business plan. I wrote the plan that night, Danny made a six figure investment, and we were in business together. Beehive was part design studio for craft products and part sustainable manufacturing service. Some early wins included the Panda Pad, which raised $60,000 on Kickstarter.”

But you don’t have to create a banging investment opportunity to make it worth your mentor’s while. Most mentors do it for the warm and fuzzies, says Lynn. “This sounds corny, however it’s really rewarding to see someone gain confidence and know you helped them in some small way. One of the great things about getting a little older is having lots of experience to draw on.”

What you can get out of a having a mentor

Most benefits of having a mentor are obvious: career guidance, help in navigating scary events like job interviews, asking for raises or promotions, and assistance in making career plan.

But others might be less expected. Lynn describes a former colleague who, 10 years after they worked together, reached out to thank her for her guidance at a critical point in her life. “I didn’t know when she started working for me that she was battling depression. But we had a great team and she came out the other side and has never gone backwards.”

As an aspiring entrepreneur, Adam found that his mentoring partnership paved the way to many other relationships. “Working with a real innovator and entrepreneur was very stimulating. It got me to focus on what’s possible. Danny was also able to make many introductions and connections that were invaluable, from suppliers to journalists to thought leaders to other entrepreneurs who’d faced the same issues I had.”

And how do you end a mentoring relationship?

Sometimes a mentoring relationship will fade – you’ll move on to a new job, you’ll fall out of touch. Other times, if your goal has been achieved, you might decide that you no longer need that particular mentor. Or maybe it just isn’t working.

“Not everyone clicks,” says Lynn. “If you feel your mentor is not working for you that is OK. It’s best to find someone that is more on your wavelength.”

Adam’s mentoring relationship had a dramatic ending. “Unfortunately, Beehive never took off and we closed it after a year. Shutting down a business is a difficult process and our mentorship arrangement didn’t survive the wind-up. However, we’re still friends, and in fact, my new business (Step Change, a marketing consultancy) now collaborates with one of Danny’s new businesses (The School of Life Australia).”

But the experience hasn’t put him off mentorship. “Today, I have several mentors (because they’re invaluable), through a group call the TEC – The Executive Connection. I get together monthly with 15 other business owners, it’s like having a private advisory board. People share their issues and the collective wisdom of the group creates some well thought-through answers.”

So if you’re looking to crank your career up a few notches, it may be time to start looking around for a mentor – they might even be looking for you.

Lead image: HBO, 30 Rock

Vivienne is a travelling freelance writer/editor, feminist, Harry Potter nerd and co-founder of Taylor Hermione & Co, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes safe relationships, consent and gender issues to teenagers in Australia. Find her on Twitter @VivEgan41 and Instagram @vivalogue