Three things that will help you choose a good mentor

Oprah Winfrey is one the most famous TV personalities of our time. She is probably best known for her talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, but she is also an accomplished actress, media proprietor, philanthropist and producer. Oprah was mentored by celebrated author and poet, the late Maya Angelou. "She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life," Winfrey said. "Mentors are important and I don't think anybody makes it in the world without some form of mentorship."

Just like Oprah – and many other successful people – mentorships can be some of the most important relationships you ever develop.

What does a mentor do?

Let's look at one definition of mentorship:

Mentorship is a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. The mentor may be older or younger than the person being mentored, but she or he must have a certain area of expertise. It is a learning and development partnership between someone with vast experience and someone who wants to learn.

So in the first place this is all about learning from someone who has more experience or expertise than you do.

But mentorship can also extend beyond learning. If you have a trusted personal relationship, a good mentor can help you work through difficult situations. In this case the relationship becomes much more personal – you are entrusting your feelings, doubts and fears to an outsider. And this can make a huge difference in your life.

So in the second place a good mentoring relationship can help you work through tough situations outside of specific fields of expertise.

Three things that will help you choose a good mentor

There are many things that go into a good mentor-mentee relationship. Here are three you should consider.

  • Not everyone who wants to be a mentor will be a good one.
  • There is something in it for the mentor – is it the right thing?
  • Like all relationships, success is dependent on the effort you put into it.

1. Not everyone who wants to be a mentor will be a good one

The idea of being a mentor is attractive to many people. There is admiration and prestige associated with being someone's mentor. And, as a mentor, you're associated with the success that the mentee has achieved. That feeds the mentor's ego – which in itself is not a bad thing, but if it is the primary reason the mentor is doing this you're in trouble.

Mentors are people too. They are driven by their own desires, fears, ambitions and priorities. And like all of us a mentor has their own unique world view, so their advise is going to be biased based on their experience and preferences. You're looking for mentorship because of that experience and expertise, but if past experience has closed the mentor's mind you're not going to get the benefit of that experience.

Being a good mentor requires that you're able to listen, absorb and understand something from someone else's viewpoint. Not all of us can do this equally well. If someone is dismissive you're not learning from them – you're just listening to their bias.

So accept that not all mentorship relationships are born equal, and be willing to test the waters before committing to a long-term relationship.

2. There is something in it for the mentor – is it the right thing?

There's always a reason why we do something, and playing the role of a mentor is no exception. You need to understand why your mentor wants to be in that role.

In the best case, a mentor accepts the role because they respect you and your accomplishments and ambitions. They want to help because they can see that you're authentic, ambitious and willing to take advice, and perhaps they see a little of themselves in what you're doing. And they like you – personally. (A mentorship where either party does not actually like the other person never works.)

Without that respect you are likely to get talked down to – or worse. The mentor's ego and own priorities are going to drive their advice to you, and you're worse off because of that.

Beware the mentorship where the mentor has a vested interest in what you're doing! If the mentor stands to benefit financially from his or her advice to you, you don't have a mentor – you have an inside trader. They will try to steer you in a way that they think will benefit them the most – consciously or unconsciously.

So, look for a mentor that has no vested interest in what you're doing; someone who can listen and advise without getting emotionally involved, and most importantly someone with whom you share a mutual liking and respect.

And if you don't know why a mentor wants to take on the role – ask them. Then watch closely to see if how they act and advise you is consistent with what they expressed.

3. A successful relationship depends on the amount of effort you put into it

Every relationship between people grows or diminishes based on the amount of effort you put into it. Mentoring is no different.

You have to actively reach out to your mentor to keep the relationship going and benefit from their expertise. If you only speak to your mentor when they call you, you're not committed to the relationship.

One way to make sure the mentorship works for both you and your mentor is to set up regular meetings or calls. This can range from daily to weekly or even monthly – my recommendation is at least once every two weeks. As the relationship grows and you get more benefit from it you will see what works for you.

Asking your mentor to be an accountability partner is another way to get the most from your relationship. An accountability partner is someone who – obviously – holds you accountable for your commitments. So commit to your mentor to get stuff done by a specific date, and ask them to hold you accountable. How they hold you accountable is up to them – personally I prefer someone who will not sugar-coat any of my failings and give me the proverbial kick up the backside if necessary.

If you're not talking to your mentor regularly you are either not getting the right value from the relationship, or you're not putting in enough effort (or both). In the end, it's up to you.

But what do I do if I can't find a good mentor?

Not all mentorships need to start with a full-on commitment. The best mentors that I've had were relationships where I would ask for occasional advice, and if things went well I would ask if we could formalize the relationship.

You already know that not all wannabe mentors are good ones. So start slow, take your mentor candidates for a coffee or a beer to ask their advice (without mentioning mentoring) a couple of times at least to see how things go.

You don't have to have just one mentor. I have at least three or four – some informal, a couple more formal. Each mentor has specific areas of expertise or perspective that help me tremendously in particular areas. So I've avoided the problem of finding one good mentor by building relationships with a number of people whom I can ask for advice.

Let's recap

A mentor is a person you can learn from. They have expertise or experience you don't have.

Not everyone who wants to be a mentor will be a good one. Choose your mentors with care and develop a mentorship relationship over time rather than jumping into a fill commitment.

Make sure that the mentor is in the relationship for the right reasons. People with a vested interest in what you do rarely make a good mentor.

You need to nurture your mentorship relationships just like any other relationships. Talk to them regularly and ask them to be an accountability partner where it makes sense.

Find your Maya Angelou – and your Barbara Walters

We don't know that much about the personal relationship between Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou – but we do know that Oprah highly regarded her as a friend and mentor.

Oprah also once told Barbara Walters in an interview "Had there not been you, there never would have been me." So Oprah had Barbara as another mentor – and we can be assured there were many others.

Just like Oprah, you need to surround yourself with informal and formal mentors throughout your life. Choose them with care, nurture the relationships and know that they won't last for ever.

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