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5 Mistakes People Make When Looking For a Mentor

Having a mentor is one of the best things you can do for your career. All the education in the world can't fully prepare you for any profession. Getting in there and getting started can feel a little scary, no matter how much training you've had. And, you're bound to have a lot of questions. Having a mentor to go to for advice, wisdom, and sometimes even a little extra encouragement, can make a big difference. When looking for a mentor, there are a few common mistakes you should try to avoid. Steering clear of these should help you find someone who's the best fit for you.

Having a mentor is one of the best things you can do for your career. All the education in the world can’t fully prepare you for any profession. Getting in there and getting started can feel a little scary, no matter how much training you’ve had. And, you’re bound to have a lot of questions. Having a mentor to go to for advice, wisdom, and sometimes even a little extra encouragement, can make a big difference. When looking for a mentor, there are a few common mistakes you should try to avoid. Steering clear of these should help you find someone who’s the best fit for you.

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(Photo Credit: SkydiveAndes/Flickr)

1. Impatience.

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It’s good to be eager, especially when taking on a new job or starting out in a field. But, it takes time to become great at something. Look for a mentor that can guide and advise you, but don’t expect someone to be able to help you answer all of your questions right away. If you dismiss anyone who doesn’t solve all your problems after just a few conversations, you could be letting go of a potentially great opportunity. Instead, be patient. Develop relationships with people in your field whom you respect and admire, and then spend a lot of time talking to them. Through a patient approach, your true mentor will rise to the surface. Just don’t expect them to get you on track with everything right away. These things take time.

2. Thinking you need a formal mentor.

Many mentor/mentee relationships are informal. Even if your company does set you up with a formal mentor, that doesn’t mean that they are the person who will ultimately “do the job.” The folks who make the best mentors can be really busy, (they’re successful after all, right?!) and they might not sign up to participate in a formal process. The relationship will develop more casually and gradually than that. And, that’s okay. Having the “mentor” label tacked on does nothing to solidify the relationship or make it more powerful. These are true relationships, and the best kind tend to develop naturally rather than through a formal process.

3. Imagining that your mentor will look like you.

Mentors come in lots of surprising packages. Sometimes, they aren’t even a superior. They could be someone in a lateral position – a co-worker with more experience than you and a willingness to share. If you’re a woman, you might think that having a female mentor would be best. But, in some fields, that can be really tricky to achieve.

“Search for role models you can look up to and people who take an interest in your career. But here’s an important warning: you don’t have to have mentors that look like you.” Condoleeza Rice said when asked about mentorship, “Had I been waiting for a black, female Soviet specialist mentor, I would still be waiting. Most of my mentors have been old white men, because they were the ones who dominated my field.”

Keep your mind (and eyes) open for someone that can help you learn the ropes, and remember that they might not look the way you’d imagined.

4. Looking for only one person to do the job.

Hopefully, you will have many mentors over the course of your career. Mentors are like friends this way. If you’re looking for one friend to fill every friendship-need you have, you’ll likely be disappointed. It’s the same with mentors. One person might be good at helping you navigate client relationships, another will teach you about how to run meetings, and another will help you work well with co-workers and your boss, for example. Don’t expect any one person to be everything you need. Instead, build a team of support.

5. Not knowing yourself or understanding your needs.

In order to find the mentor or mentors that are right for you, you need to have a good understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses and of your style in general. If you don’t know where you need to improve and hone your skills, it will be tough to ask the right questions and get the guidance you need. Take some time to honestly think through where you are professionally and where you’d like to grow. This should help you zero in on the right fit.

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How did you find your mentor? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.


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