What Is a Mentor — and How Can You Find the Best One for You?

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By Laura Berlinsky-Schine

READ MORE: Career advice, Career development, Mentorship, Professional development

Early in Lena Dunham’s career, Nora Ephron invited the future Girls creator out to lunch. It was the beginning of a year-and-a-half-long friendship that lasted until Ephron’s death. In a New Yorker essay, Dunham describes how her mentor advised her on everything from the kind of jackets to wear on set to interacting with film composers.

Some of the most successful people have gotten where they are today at least in part because of mentoring. Having an effective mentor can lead to a world of possibilities.

So what is a mentor?

A mentor is a person who advises someone in her area of expertise. Often, the mentor-mentee relationship consists of someone older coaching a young person in her career, although an older mentee can certainly learn from young people as well.

Both the mentor and mentee often learn and grow from a mentoring relationship. As the mentee hones her goals and discovers how to thrive in her career, the mentor often learns something about herself and how to be an effective teacher. In that way, the relationship can be mutually beneficial.

Mentoring doesn’t have to be a formal process. While there are many mentor programs, an informal, organic mentorship can be equally effective.

If you’re in search of a mentor, but you're not sure of how to find a mentor, here's a hint: don’t wait for her to find you. Being proactive will help you find the right person. Think about people you admire. It doesn’t need to be someone famous; in fact, it’s probably better if it’s not. It could be someone you know personally, such as your boss or a current or former professor. You might also reach out to someone on LinkedIn—an alumna from your college or high school or someone whose career you respect.

If you do contact a person you don’t actually know yet, introduce yourself and explain your purpose for reaching out. Rather than outright asking “Can I be your mentee?”, describe how you consider her a role model and are looking for guidance. Don’t use it as an opportunity to ask for a job; that is likely to be off-putting. Invite her to coffee, or, if distance is an issue, ask if you can talk on the phone. Understand that while many people will be flattered and eager to help you, others might not be receptive or just not have the time. If your potential mentor declines or doesn’t respond, politely thank her anyway and look for someone else.

When you do meet your mentor, come prepared with some specific questions. While some people will offer advice without being prompted, you should be prepared just in case. If you’re at a loss for what to ask, consider what your goals are. Ask how you could get there and what skills you should learn. A good starting point is to simply ask your potential mentor to describe her own journey and experience and how she got to where she is today.

If your initial meeting goes well, follow up. In order for the relationship to evolve, you’ll need to meet and check in routinely.

Remember that a great mentor will challenge her mentee. She may be critical at times, but that’s how the mentee knows what to work on and improve. If your mentor is continuously heaping praise on you, you won’t be motivated to learn.

Mentoring can go a long way in helping you achieve your goals. You might find a new role, advance in your career, gain knowledge, or discover a passion. Developing a strong mentoring relationship can take time and work, but it will be well worth it.

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