8 tips for finding and making the most of a mentor

Written by
Peter Dunn

One of the most important distinctions between having a job and having a career, is strategy. Jobs are often acquired for the lone purpose of paying bills. Ain't nothin wrong with that. Because sometimes that's what the situation calls for. In fact, I've seen people jump out of careers and into jobs for this exact reason. But the career path is the path in which you can reap the most long term benefits. To stay on this path, you need a strategy. And one of the most important strategies that I have employed is the use of a mentor.

A mentor is a person that can help you develop professional skills and culture. To me, one of the main differences in having a good career and a great career is deciding that you need to learn from a mentor. Many of this world's business and civic leaders have used mentors. Gandhi had a mentor named Dadabhai Naoroji, and Warren Buffett had a mentor named Ben Graham. You have to remember that Gandhi wasn't always Gandhi, and Warren Buffett wasn't always Warren Buffett. They were two young men that had two powerful passions, and wanted to dedicate their lives to these passions. They did. And you can to. You just need to reach up to people that have already achieved something more than you have, and you need to learn from them.

Sounds easy, right? Well, it's not that easy. But don't worry, below you will find my best 8 tips for finding a mentor and making the most out of the relationship. Mentors can serve many purposes. They can teach, inspire, constructively criticize, and introduce you to new concepts. As you read through my tips below, think about what is lacking in your career right now, then utilize the advice to fill the gaps.

  1. You must believe in strangers' willingness to care about you- This is hard. Your buddies barely want to help you move on the weekend. Why would a complete stranger want to help you advance your career? Because someone helped them once. It's the closest thing to a fraternity that matters. Truly successful people will want to help you. The flipside of this is obvious. You too must be willing to help a young professional someday when you are called upon to do so.
  1. One won't do the trick, get a few- Don't stall the process by looking for the perfect mentor. There is the perfect mentor to help you with a particular skill or concept, but it's unlikely that one person can help you fully develop. I have at least three mentors, and they all serve different purposes. One is a skilled senior level executive, one is a business coach, and one is a friend who is four years my major. Two of the mentors are men, and one is a woman. Brilliance doesn't discriminate, so why should I?
  1. Ask- You must ask for what you want. This advice is not limited to your hunt for a mentor. Ask. If I want something to be a certain way, then I ask for it. You will be stunned by how much more you can get out of life simply by asking for what you want. This doesn't mean free stuff, it means asking yourself into advantageous situations.
  1. Industry doesn't matter- None of my mentors are in the financial industry. I want leadership and business skills, not technical skill. That's just me, your desires may be different. I think you can learn more about your business by talking to someone outside of your industry. They won't have the biases that often cloud objective judgement.
  1. Pick the leader of one of your competitors- This has nothing to do with loyalty or stealing trade secrets. This is about marking your territory. It takes cajones to start a relationship with a leader in your industry, who happens to be a competitor. This is exactly how I found one of my mentors in the media industry. He knew that I wasn't trying to "steal" anything, and we have a great mutually beneficial relationship.
  1. You need to listen- No one likes getting dumped on. Don't bring baggage to your mentorship meetings. Bring questions. The questions can't be outspokenly self-serving. Your ability to ask tactful, meaningful questions WILL be the difference between your mentor sharing SOME info and ALL info.
  1. Don't be a creeper, but research their background- You need to research the hell out of your mentor. However you shouldn't recite their life to them. You just need to know where they're coming from. Your base knowledge of them will give their stories more meaning. They will sense your interest and they will sincerely appreciate this. Just don't let on that you know their dog's name. That's just creepy.
  1. If you have a current conundrum, ask them if they have had a similar one and how they would handle it- Don't confuse this with whining and/or complaining. Successful people run their "problems" by other successful people. Once you have a mentor, then you will earn the right to do this. Don't be surprised when they start sharing their issues with you too. It really is a great relationship when you can work on business problems together.

I've used all of these tips, and they have helped me tremendously. As you meet with your mentor, don't forget the rules of "who should pick up the check" etiquette. The rules are the rules, don't break them and embarrass yourself. Trust me, your mentor already knows the rules.

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