How to find and keep a great mentor

A mentoring relationship cannot be a one-way street. If you find someone who offers career guidance, here’s how to keep that special relationship bearing fruit for both of you.

If it weren’t for a few incredible women, I might be crying in a dark corner somewhere.

Instead, I’m at this challenging, passionate, and driven agency in a region I am proud to call home. I am exactly where I want to be.

Mentors have made a profound impact on my life. It must have been dumb luck or divine intervention; I never sought them out. Simply being in the proximity of strong women I admire shifted my direction and helped me to be more true to myself.

After college, I worked in TV news. Jenny trained me to produce while she was training for marathons, anchoring, and becoming a mother. Upon entering public relations, I met Jess. I saw her chase her dreams and run her own business. Both are high achievers, but their accomplishments pale in comparison to their integrity and character. Each is a phenomenal human being with an incredible work ethic and strong values.

I was fortunate enough to work under both of these incredibly intelligent, unwavering, healthy, fun, loving leaders. They’re inspiring. They’re bad-ass. They are professional and kind, have really high expectations, and maintain a gentle approach.

As I’ve watched my peers navigate waters in a tough professional climate, I have come to realize how rare it is to find a great mentor.

Here are a few key components to finding and keeping a great mentor:

Be open

Be ready to allow this person to see your best and worst. Without your vulnerability, your mentor won’t be able to help you. A great mentor is someone you can talk freely around.

Being open also applies to general open-mindedness. Although Jenny was my supervisor at work, watching her strike a work/life balance and observing her approach to parenting helped me realize I want a family someday. Be ready to learn things you don’t expect to.

Respect

Choose someone who makes your dreams seem possible.

Jenny was a great producer and anchor. Jess is an accomplished and adored public relations pro. I never wanted to let them down. They cared about my personal development, so disappointing them disappointed me. I could get burned out on the company, the tasks, and the hours, but at the end of the day, they usually had more on their plate and stayed resilient. I aspired to be more like them.

Respect is a two-way street. I also know I can bounce ideas or concerns off Jess and get an honest response. I do not fear that she will set me up to fail or judge me harshly for not fully understanding something. I know she respects me enough to offer genuine support.

Experience

I recommend choosing someone who is considerably more seasoned than you. This doesn’t always equate to age.

Each my senior by a few years, Jenny and Jess had considerably more professional experience under their belts. I was a rookie in some ways, and they each helped to develop me. There was never a sense of competition.

Time commitment

Communicate your expectations.

I didn’t expect to work with Jenny for more than two years. I’ve regrettably lost touch but still follow her social channels and adore the updates on her growing family. She continues to be an inspiration from afar.

I hope to maintain my relationship with Jess for several years. She’s a local PR pro, a savvy networker, and someone who knows how to “be the duck.” I still have a lot to learn. When I stopped working with Jess last April, I asked for her help and guidance as a mentor to continue. I don’t expect more than coffee or drinks once a month, and I understand this takes work on my part to plan.

Parallel lives, serendipity

Choose someone who has similar goals, has already achieved some of your goals, and has a schedule that will work for both of you.

Although I’m their junior and we are different in most ways, Jenny’s and Jess’s lives lined up with mine. Both lived in the same town and had similar recreational interests during my time as a mentee. Work, running, yoga, kids, marriage, travel—each of these women have accomplished some of my personal goals, so we connect constantly because our paths cross on several levels.

Mutual admiration

Jenny was married; I was fresh out of college. She was from a traditional East Coast family; I from a mixed West Coast mess of a group.

Our common interests brought us together. We celebrated our differences. Jenny and Jess helped me accomplish my goals in a way that worked for me. Neither demanded I adhere to a specific set of rules or steps. Our differences also helped me understand myself better. Understanding another’s process increases self-awareness through supportive comparison.

Be a teacher

The saying goes, “The best way to learn is to teach.” It seems a little backward, but it’s true. Mentors don’t become mentors solely out of wanting a rookie to succeed. A great mentor sees your potential and understands the rewards and gratification that come with helping someone progress. At times, I know I also helped my mentors learn something or find a new perspective or offer words of encouragement.

Gratitude

Nobody wants to help someone with a sense of entitlement. Someone willing to help you for no material gain is rare and should be cherished. Find ways to give back. Celebrate their achievements and milestones, encourage them, and continually remind them you’re grateful for their guidance. Help them see themselves through your eyes.

Improve

Great mentors commit time and energy to you. If you don’t demonstrate commitment to your own personal development, why should they? Your actions demonstrate how much you value the relationship.

I was stuck in a major rut, and Jess was sick of hearing me complain about it. She didn’t have to say it. I knew she was eager to see me move past a particular challenge and find my own strategy. When I did, she seemed to feel my relief and achievement as I did. Once I finally took matters into my hands, she was there to celebrate my accomplishments on the other side.

Humor

Generally speaking, humor can be absent in a professional atmosphere. The relationship you have with your mentor can help you to not take things personally. “Be the duck,” Jess says to me almost every time we talk. She and Jenny know how much pressure I put on myself so they would sprinkle in laughter to make our serious conversations bearable. Jenny had a particular affinity for cat pictures.

We all have our own reasons for seeking out mentors. They can help us answer the tough questions we forget to ask ourselves. Here’s a piece on how to be a great mentor.

A version of this article first appeared on the Abbi Agency blog.

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