Why Finding Your Best Mentor Has Nothing to Do With the C-Suite

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Mentors come in all shapes and sizes.

Photograph by Mark Airs via Getty Images

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: How do you find a mentor? is written by Dennis Yang, CEO of Udemy.

I was lucky with my first mentor. He was my manager at my second job out of college. He took a special interest in my career goals, the things I liked to do outside of work, and how he might be able to help me develop into the professional I wanted to be. He didn’t limit his attentions to my job performance in that specific role or where I might go within the company. Indeed, when I realized I didn’t even want to stay in that field, he supported me and guided my decision to go back to grad school. As a manager, he could’ve tried to keep me in that job, but as my mentor, he was more concerned with my long-term success and personal development.

Clicking with a mentor is a little like cultivating a new friendship; it’s most likely to gel if you’re not consciously working at it. The best mentoring relationships develop organically, not by force of will. While most people hope to have an invested mentor in their lives, it’s not the kind of thing you can put on your to-do list and set a deadline for.

But when a strong mentor candidate materializes, you have to be prepared to listen and take it seriously when he or she sizes you up and weighs in on where you need to improve. You have to be ready to speak openly and honestly about your dreams, fears, and limitations, and you have to be willing to try new things, learn, and grow.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about finding a mentor and building a relationship that’s rewarding to you both:

Don’t label it

At the time, I didn’t see my second manager as my mentor. I knew he was a caring person who always had worthwhile advice and that I could speak my mind to him in a way I couldn’t with other senior execs. Later, after I moved out of town, started grad school, and transitioned to a different industry, I realized calling him “my former manager” didn’t do him justice. Your perfect mentor might be right under your nose, and you haven’t even realized it yet.

Don’t limit it

Your mentor doesn’t have to be a CEO or big shot. Your mentor doesn’t need to work in your industry or even be well-connected within it, though that could certainly be helpful. Having a mentor is about so much more than career advancement. A great mentor will also help you develop into a better thinker, problem-solver, and teammate. Mentorships are unmatched for helping you develop soft skills that will serve you well throughout your life in all of your relationships. Mentors come in all shapes and sizes, and yours could come from anywhere — a teacher, a coach, a retiree, a parent — the list goes on.

Don’t force it

People can sense when you’re trying too hard to woo a potential mentor. You’re better off going about your regular business and letting connections develop without pressure. But you do have to put yourself out there. While networking events are good for connecting with new peers, they don’t necessarily lend themselves to regular, ongoing contact with someone inspiring. Find a balance so you get what you need from your mentor without demanding unreasonable time and attention.

Don’t neglect it

Relationships take work, and mentorships are no different. Your mentor may not be your manager, but he isn’t your buddy either. Don’t blow off lunch dates or fail to follow through on things you say you’ll do. Show gratitude and respect for your mentor’s experience, wisdom, and support. It might feel like you’re doing more taking than giving in the relationship, but the best mentors realize they can learn from the experience, too, so be an active participant — not just an empty vessel waiting to get filled with knowledge.

A great mentor isn’t going to be your unconditional defender or career savior. A great mentor will push you, guide you, and support you in reaching your fullest potential, but he can’t do the work for you. He may, however, be cheering the loudest when you achieve.

Dennis Yang

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