Five Things to Do to Find a Great Mentor

Posted 12.04.2014

luke-skywalkerOver the course of my career, I’ve had the good fortune to have a number of mentors who have helped shape my life and career. I wrote about one of them in a pre-Thanksgiving post I wrote last week.

I don’t think I ever set out to recruit a particular person as a mentor. The relationships just sort of naturally evolved with the people who ended up being my mentors. At this point in my career, I’ve been both mentor and protégé (I can’t stand the word “mentee” – it sounds like a candy you’d eat after dinner.)  Considering both of those perspectives, I’ve identified five things to do to find a great mentor. With the hope that they’re useful to you or someone you know, here they are:

Volunteer:  I long ago lost track of the number of times I’ve volunteered for a big job or project. Sometimes, the answer has been, “Thanks, but no thanks.”  More often, it was, “Heck, yeah.” There’s some risk involved in volunteering, but there’s also risk in keeping your head down. Most senior leaders appreciate it when people volunteer for tough assignments. That lays the groundwork for a mentoring relationship.

Do Great Work:  Of course, you’re more likely to have a senior leader assign you to an important job or project if you have a history of doing great work. There are a lot of factors that go into great work. (Michael Bungay Stanier has written a great book on the subject.) Some of the elements that make my list include relevance, attention to detail and creating more value than was expected.  Great work attracts great mentors.

Be Open:  There may be times when a senior leader asks you to do something that you don’t feel ready for. Be open to those opportunities. The likelihood is the senior leader sees qualities and capabilities in you that you don’t yet see in yourself. That ability to spot talent is one of the things that makes a great mentor.  Say yes to things that make you nervous.

Watch and Learn:  Sometimes your mentor may not even realize she’s your mentor. Watch and learn from the best leaders in your organizations. Pay attention to how they handle themselves, the way they interact with people, what they say and don’t say, how they say or don’t say it, what they choose work on, how they handle disappointment, how they develop their people. You can learn a lot by watching.

Don’t Ask:  Whatever you do, don’t ask a senior leader if they’ll be your mentor. It usually just creeps the leader out because you put them on the spot by asking the question. Honestly, the fact that you asked will usually make them less likely to be your mentor. Mentors choose protégés. It’s usually not the other way around. The senior leader has a limited amount of time and attention to invest in developing people. They get to choose where to invest it.

What’s your experience? Have you had a great mentor? How did the two of you connect in the first place? If you’re the mentor, what do you look for in a protégé?