Aristotle was mentored by Plato, Oprah Winfrey by Maya Angelou, Luke Skywalker by Obi-Wan, Yoda and others. Mentoring is widely recognized as a helpful practice for those involved, and there are several statistics documented on the benefits of mentorship. For example, mentees are promoted five times more often than those without mentors, and mentors themselves are six times more likely to be promoted. I’ve personally had some wonderful experiences thanks to mentors and their encouragement. Still, I wanted to get some external, real-world feedback on the advertised benefits, so I asked my social media circle what they’ve gained through having or being a mentor. Some highlights.

  • Perspective from a different vantage point that I’d otherwise not likely arrive at on my own.
  • An interconnected network which has been so important with frequent moves.
  • …it’s helped me become way more assertive in the workplace.
  • Accelerated career and personal growth.
  • How to strive to be my authentic true self.
  • Advice and a sounding board.

Indeed, mentorship seems like a no-brainer, so I was surprised when I read the results of a study on mentorship. This study, done by the Olivet Nazarene University in 2019, found that only 37% of professionals have a mentor. Now we know a lot has been thrown at the world since 2019. If I were a betting person, I’d wager that finding a mentor has been put on the back burner for many professionals recently, and that percentage may now be even lower. But mentorship – one individual nurturing the development of another in a relationship based upon mutual trust and respect – might be the best way for many people to invest their time right now.

Mentorships truly require an investment of time and energy, from both the mentor and the mentee. So in the next few paragraphs I’ll layout some suggestions on finding the right mentor(s), getting the mentorship off to a good start and making the most of your investment.

Finding the Right Mentor

Some mentorships seem like natural evolutions of an existing relationship. Some start more like blind dates. In all cases, it’s important to be intentional on how you define each mentoring relationship and to make a commitment to it.

  • Start with “what.” What skills, specifically, do you want to develop? Sales strategies, how to start a business, leadership, creative writing, public speaking? Write them down.
  • Go through your network. Who do you know and respect with these skills? Write their names down. Depending on the ‘what’, these may or may not be people from your workplace, or even industry. For example, your neighbor who owns her own hair salon and has three children may be a great source of guidance on work-life balance.
    • If you don’t already know someone with the target skills, look for professional organizations that have mentoring programs, or ask for referrals.
  • Explain what you’re looking for in the mentorship and ask if they’re interested. For example, are you hoping to meet monthly? Quarterly? Explain your goals clearly and why you think this person is the right mentor for you. Also think about what you can offer them, and how to make the logistics easy on them.
    • You might be scared. The worst they can say is no, and they’ll probably do it politely.
  • Note to mentors: If you see potential in someone and feel you can offer him/her valuable guidance, offer to be their mentor!

Don’t limit yourself to just one mentor! Give each relationship the attention it deserves, especially at the beginning, but over time, you can build your own “mentor board of directors.” By having multiple mentors, you can learn from a variety of people with different skills and experiences. I would highly recommend that at least one of them be “identity based,” meaning someone who shares your race, ethnicity, gender or another trait that significantly impacts your own experiences. Being able to talk to, and problem solve with, someone who “gets it” is invaluable.

An important clarification: Mentors and sponsors are not the same thing. They have overlap, but don’t assume that because your company has assigned you a sponsor (or your university has assigned you an advisor) that you will soon receive the benefits of mentorship. For example, mentors give advice on but can’t necessarily give you a new job, raise, or promotion. In contrast, sponsors can do that for you. Don’t expect mentors to be sponsors, but they can introduce you to sponsors.

Maintaining a Successful Mentorship

In my opinion, the most important principle a mentee needs to remember in maintaining a mentorship is to respect the mentor. This respect drives the execution.

  • Out of respect for the mentor’s time, the mentee should come with relevant questions and topics. Depending on the mentor’s style, you may want to bring a written agenda.
  • Set goals, short and long term. Definitely write these down. (Celebrate them as they are achieved!)
  • Be teachable and curious. You chose this mentor for a reason. Trust his/her guidance or voice your concerns respectfully. This should be a safe space to explore them.
  • Follow through on any action items.
  • Be organized, efficient and responsible.

Like any human relationship, a personal connection is important. Don’t be afraid to end the relationship if it doesn’t feel right – if there isn’t mutual trust and respect. It may take some networking and trial and error to find a mentor that you trust and have a connection with, and that’s okay. You may be able to continue each relationship in a different way, or pick it up in the future if timing simply isn’t right.

For mentors, respect is again the key to success, though it will take different forms for the mentor. Kenneth Ortiz gave a TED talk which provides great perspective, and here are the key points.

  • Be willing to spend lots of time on the relationship, more time than you anticipated
  • Plan. For example, think about tasks you can provide to evaluate your mentee, give them practice and enable his/her growth. The plans should be based on the mentee’s goals.
  • Be extremely encouraging. Praise their choices and behaviors.
  • Bring correction and instruction when needed.

At this point, you may be thinking that you’d rather pursue personal development tools online than face potential rejection, schedule actual face to face meetings and make yourself accountable to even more people. That sounds like a lot of work. That’s because it is! Any valuable relationship will require your time and energy. Yes, you can learn from great minds and experienced entrepreneurs on YouTube, from podcasts, and through online courses. These are all fantastic, and yet, a mentoring relationship provides something additional that these online resources cannot – customization. A good mentor will be able to assess your specific strengths, weaknesses and progress and then provide direction, support and feedback that is specific to you and your situation.