How Do You Find a Career Mentor?

Two businesswoman having a conversation

Whether you’re a recent graduate about to embark on your career or a seasoned professional navigating the difficult waters of professional development and career pathing, a mentor can be an invaluable resource for career advice, support, connections, and encouragement.

A mentor, by nature of what they’re not, occupies a unique position in your professional ecosystem.

They’re likely not a colleague, so there’s little element of competition. They’re probably not your direct boss, so there’s no fear that you have to hold back or else lose your job. They’re not a family member or close friend, so you know you’ll get an unbiased opinion on career matters that’s probably not emotionally-charged. And, they’re not a newbie. Great mentors know your industry or career path well because they’ve been down that same or similar road themselves, so the knowledge that they are able to impart to you is first-hand, relevant, and highly valuable.

This is the ideal mentor.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But what do you do if this type of relationship hasn’t naturally presented itself to you over the course of your education or work experience?

Oftentimes the mentor/mentee relationship happens organically, over time, as you naturally gravitate toward someone in your field or industry who is more experienced than you but also not directly in charge of your hiring and firing.

But, if this hasn’t happened to you yet, there are still things you can do to actively seek out a mentor and make a genuine connection with someone who would be willing to give you honest, insightful feedback about your industry or your own career choices.

Here are some things you can do now to identify a mentor and start getting the kind of guidance and encouragement you need to be successful and feel better about the professional choices you’re making:

Consider where you want to be in 10, 20, or 30 years

Depending on where you are in your career, a “long-term” plan could mean very different things. But no matter where you are in your career path, identifying a mentor starts with identifying who or where you’d like to be (professionally speaking) in 10, 20, or even 30 years. What is your ideal job or role? Where do you see the pinnacle of your career?

Once you’ve identified where you’d like to go, you can begin to seek out people who have already gotten there so that you know whatever advice or guidance you get is going to be directly relevant to your own career goals.

Get out there

Attend all of your organizations meetings, functions, or social outings; find the time to network outside of your employer; engage in professional development opportunities like conferences or trade shows (and be an active participant, not just a passive attendee)... in short, in order to have meaningful interactions with good potential mentors, you need to put yourself in situations where these types of interactions are most likely to happen. If you’re a workplace “hermit” and rarely interact with anyone, it’s unlikely that you’ll develop a friendship or a potential career mentor.

Don’t be weird

Simply put, let the relationship happen organically and authentically. Don’t force it, as this can quickly get awkward and uncomfortable. While you certainly can and should initiate interactions (reach out on social media, schedule a coffee or lunch date, send a nice email, etc.) and even be upfront about your desire to seek out career advice, a great mentor/mentee relationship is also a friendship, and as such it’s not just a one-sided transaction where you’re always on the receiving end of brilliant career advice.

Rather, it’s an exchange, a rich relationship that should be just as fulfilling for your mentor as it is for you. If you approach someone with a clear agenda and only seem to care about what information you can squeeze out of them, they’ll likely form an opinion about you very quickly… and it probably won’t be good.

Don’t be afraid to be direct, ask for advice

Perhaps you have someone in mind that would make a great mentor for you -- they’ve had a similar career path to the one you want and have achieved the kind of success you’re working towards, they seem to have a similar work/life philosophy, and you respect and value their opinions on professional matters. Maybe you’ve met briefly a few times but haven’t been able to develop a one-on-one relationship yet. They’re not a stranger, but you wouldn’t call them a “friend.”

In this circumstance, it’s often ok for you to take the first step and reach for specific advice on one particular issue, problem, or decision you’re facing. You’re not approaching them just yet to be your mentor as that would be a little premature, but you are letting them know that their opinion matters to you. This will give you a chance to convey how much you value their advice and respect their success in your field, and it will also open up a two-way dialogue that will hopefully develop organically into a fruitful, fulfilling mentor/mentee friendship.

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