You’ve heard it again and again: Everyone needs a mentor in their career, if not several. Just like you want the kind of friends who can successfully guide you through life’s twists and turns—like how much you should spend on your next apartment or whether or not you should get bangs—you want people who can provide that same level of support in your career. And mentors can be valuable in just about any stage you’re in, whether you’re job searching, getting adjusted in a role, looking to move up, or exploring a new and intimidating path.
But what exactly makes for great mentorship? We’ll let you in on the secret formula to finding and keeping the perfect mentor for you.
What Is a Mentor?
A mentor is a person who provides you with the tools, guidance, support, and feedback you need to thrive in your career. They’re often someone who’s gone down the same road you’re on currently and is “there to advise you on what they’ve done and what’s worked for them” says Muse career coach Brad Finkeldei.
Just about anyone can act as your career mentor—a friend, a friend of a friend, a family member, an alumnus of your school, a co-worker or peer, a current or former boss, someone you got to know through a networking event. A mentor isn’t someone you admire from afar. They should be able to play a consistent role in your life over some period of time.
First, they’re knowledge and opportunity centers—they can “provide you with insights and context and experiences that either you may not necessarily have at all or you have limited visibility into,” he says. Plus, having a mentor “can help you get unstuck” when you’re struggling to come up with a solution to a problem or can’t seem to make a decision.
Having a mentor also helps you build your professional network because they may know or be connected with people who can help you down the road.
(Oh, and being a mentor provides plenty of benefits, too, including leadership training, access to new professional contacts and opportunities, and the satisfaction of being a part of someone else’s success. It’s really a two-way relationship!)
What Are the Qualities of a Good Mentor?
Not all mentors are created equal. The best mentors share some important qualities. You’ll want to look for these attributes in anyone you’re thinking about building a mentor-mentee relationship with. And if you’re looking to be a better mentor yourself, these qualities are worth noting.
1. Relevant Expertise or Knowledge
It may seem obvious, but your mentor should, more often than not, have some kind of relevant background. Maybe they’re a few levels or titles ahead of you (say, a VP of sales while you’re an account executive) or have worked in the space you’re interested in for some time. But they should be able to help propel you forward because they’ve been there, seen the landscape, and know what it takes to be successful.
“Having some sort of commonality can also be really helpful because that’s usually what can bring that relationship together,” Dea adds.
One thing to watch out for: This person shouldn’t be more than five or 10 years ahead of you. Someone who’s 20 or 30 years out has a wealth of experience to share, sure, but they may also be so removed from where you are that they can’t relate to your situation and provide accurate advice. The modern workplace is constantly changing, so what was common practice in your mentor’s prime may no longer be relevant.
2. Enthusiasm for Sharing That Expertise
Just as important as your mentor having expertise is them being willing to share it with you. They shouldn’t be someone who begrudgingly hands over knowledge and expects figurative payment in return, nor should they reveal things in a vague, manipulative fashion. Rather, they should be open and excited to spread the word.
The best mentors give advice not because they like to hear themselves talk, but because they genuinely want others to benefit from the hard-won wisdom they’ve learned over the course of their careers.
3. A Respectful Attitude
You don’t want someone who criticizes you harshly and unconstructively, mistreats you or others close to you, and ultimately gives you a bad name. That makes for an unproductive and frustrating partnership.
And on the rare occasions when good mentors act in a less-than-respectful manner (look, we’re all human), they acknowledge it and apologize authentically.
4. Eagerness to Invest in Others
“Mentoring is an investment. No one gets paid to do it in their day job,” explains Dea. Because there’s no concrete incentive, you’ll want a mentor who finds genuine joy in helping others.
Great mentors realize that they’re playing a long game, and as a result are patient in how they guide others down their path. They don’t expect immediate gains, and they don’t give up easily. More importantly, they care about maintaining and growing their professional relationships.
5. The Ability to Give Honest and Direct Feedback
Finding someone who’s respectful is key, but so is finding someone who will give you some tough love when you need it. A good mentor knows how to deliver feedback in a way that’s constructive, kind, and direct, and doesn’t shy away from being honest because they’re afraid of hurting your feelings.
Basically, you want “someone who’s willing to call you out on your BS,” says Finkeldei, because rarely can you get that kind of perspective in the workplace. And you know you’ll make better decisions and come out stronger with someone like that by your side.
6. Reflective Listening and Empathy
These are important qualities in a mentor because “they can have all the answers in their head, but if they’re not willing to listen to where you’re coming from, they’re not going to be able to steer you in the direction that you want to go,” says Finkeldei.
What does this look like? Your mentor should be asking questions more often than simply telling you what to do. And, says Finkeldei, they should show that they’re “actually curious about what you’re up to and why you’re up to that.”
That curiosity is important because “you want someone who can relate to you from your perspective,” says Finkeldei. Oftentimes people try to impose their own beliefs or ways of approaching things on others, and this can be a good mentor’s downfall. So find someone you can trust to take your values and input into account over their own.
7. Willingness to Be a Sponsor
Not every mentor has to also be a sponsor, but it can be really helpful to have this kind of mentor in your corner.
The difference between the two, Dea explains, is action: While a mentor is someone who can guide you with advice and support, a sponsor is an ally who takes it one step further by being someone “who is actively advocating for you…both behind closed doors and publicly.”
Basically, he says, they use their political credibility and relationship capital to “get you access to opportunities or titles or roles that you would not be able to get on your own.”
How Do You Spot These Qualities to Find a Good Mentor?
Ask yourself these questions to see if someone in your life would be a good mentor. If you say “yes” to most or all of them, chances are they’d be the right fit for you:
Is it clear they have real experience walking the same path as you (or a path you’re interested in)?
Do they seem to invest in and enjoy being a part of others’ success?
Are they good at giving and receiving feedback?
Do they speak in a truthful and respectful manner?
Are they invested in their own growth and development?
Do they see the value in investing in growth and development in general?
Do you respect and like this person inside and outside the office?
Are they well liked by others?
Do they have mentors of their own? (If so, that’s a good sign they understand the value and impact of a mentoring relationship.)
While it’s great to be intentional about finding a mentor, Dea notes that you shouldn’t try to force it or expect things to fall into place right away. “The best approach you can [take] is to constantly be going out and building relationships with people and learning [from] them. If you’re constantly just in that mindset, you’ll kind of incept yourself into getting mentors,” he says.
And remember, says Finkeldei, having a mentor isn’t about becoming the person—rather, “you’re aspiring to have their skills and to gain the knowledge that they have.” Everyone’s seeking their own definition of a successful career, and chances are yours will look much different than your mentor’s. Rely on them for guidance and encouragement, but make sure you’re continuing to do what feels right for you.