How To Find The Perfect Professional Mentor (And Avoid The Dodgy Ones)

4 min read

Do you really need a mentor to enhance your career? There’s lot of chat out there about the value which comes from having a mentor. But what isn’t talked about are the downsides of finding a bad mentor relationship. 

Mentors can have a huge positive influence on your career, but they can also hold you back. Here are a few pitfalls to look out for.

Choose your own mentor

When joining a new business you may be assigned a sponsor, mentor or coach to help you settle in. This can also happen when you reach a certain grade or when you are identified as ‘talent’. While it’s great that your organisation is supporting your development, relationships where mentors are assigned are often hit and miss.

Who do you know?

You’re more likely to build a successful mentor relationship with an individual you have specifically identified yourself. It could be someone in your business who you look up to, or a speaker at an external event you admire, or someone who works in an area of your business you might want to move to in the future. Even a peer can be your mentor. The key is to keep an open mind.

You know how these people can be useful to you, and you have already seen how they think, act and behave. These are useful indicators which warrant at least a first meeting to see if you’d work well together.

Relationships where mentors are assigned are often hit and miss.

Have multiple mentors with different roles

Think about what you want a mentor for and find someone who fits that role. You’ll want some mentors that are great at identifying your strengths and giving you a confidence boost. You might also want a mentor with expert knowledge on a particular subject area relevant to your job. Or you might want a mentor who has risen through the ranks quickly.

You’ll want a range of advice through your career so surround yourself with useful people. You’re unlikely to get everything you want from one person.

Zella King ran with this idea and created Personal Boardroom. She recommends you have 6-12 people on your personal board, in various roles.

You are in charge not your mentor!

You need to lead the conversation with your mentor – this isn’t a coffee chat (you’ve got mates for that). This is about getting input and advice which will enhance your career.

So, prep before the meeting and use their time wisely. Figure our what you would like their input on and send them a pre-meeting agenda.

Try not to be too vague (what should I be when I grow up?!). Go with ideas and options for discussion – they can use their experience and network to help you find answers. Remember, you need to give them something to go on!

Listen to your mentor, but not too hard

Your mentor may have more experience than you but that doesn’t mean they’re always right.

You don’t want to replace your own confidence and sense of what you want with a mentor’s. You want to bounce ideas off them, listen to their input and then use all these insights to come to the right conclusion for you.

Beware of mentors recruiting in their own image

You may have a few things in common with your mentor – that’s probably what made you approach them in the first place. It could be that your mentor sees you as a younger version of themselves. It’s human nature (and unconscious bias at play) to surround yourself with people in your own likeness.

Even experienced mentors can fall into the projection trap. They remember what they wanted at your age or career stage and make assumptions about you. Or think about opportunities they achieved or missed, which impact how they see the world and the advice they give on your career path.

Be mindful that, if they work within your business, they may have their own agenda which you need to consider. It might benefit them if you stay in your current role. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for their input, but remember the context.

Be aware that it is hard for anyone to be fully objective, they’re fallible humans too.

Is your mentor holding you back?

Define your mentor’s role

Some of the terms I mentioned earlier have started to blur – Coach/ Mentor/ Sponsor etc. So decide what role you want your mentor to play and explain it to them.

I had a mentor early in my career who drove me mad! I asked for her advice and all I’d get is ‘what do you think?’. This was very frustrating when I didn’t know enough about the business to answer that question on my own. I wanted more direct input and access to her knowledge, not my questions reflected back to me.

There have been other points in my career when I’ve valued having a coach who asked intelligent, searching questions and made me interrogate what I was thinking and what I wanted. This was what I needed at the time.

Decide what you need (if you’re unsure, pick one and try it) and be clear what you see them as.

Sponsors are people who advocate for you in the workplace and help you build visibility. You need to actively make an effort to build sponsor relationships, use their network and prove your potential to your company.

Mentors and sponsors serve different purposes, but their end goal is the same: to support you in achieving your goals. Louise Pentland

Mentors MUST be ahead of you, right? Wrong.

Not all mentors need to be more senior and experienced than you. I’ve seen leaders benefit greatly from reverse mentor relationships where someone is new to the organisation, and often younger in years, takes the mentor role and mentors ‘upwards’.

This brings the leader a whole new perspective and can help expose their blind spots. It also helps leaders to improve their listening skills and adapt their communication style.

I value my mentor relationships and continue to learn a lot from them – as well as having a coach, mentors and advisors will always play a part in my career and business. I’m an advocate of mentors, but I challenge you not to fall into some of these traps.

If you actively manage the relationship and keep these risks in mind, your mentor can be a valuable source of advice and guidance.

Kat x

Are you looking to find a career mentor? Have you had a bad mentor in the past? Head over to The Squad, you might find your new mentor!

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  1. AJ says

    Great article! I have a couple of informal mentors – one of them for 16 years now. They provide different sound boarding roles for me. One helps me climb the ladder while another helps me [realistically] juggle career and kids.

    1. Iris Lillian says

      Hey AJ, that’s fantastic! How did you find them?

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