“Find a mentor” is brilliant career advice, so why is it so impossible to follow?

George Harrison with his musical mentor Ravi Shankar.
George Harrison with his musical mentor Ravi Shankar.
Image: AP Photo
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Highly successful people often point to one person who gave them help of a kind no one else could: Their mentor. From the worlds of business to adventure sports, having that person—wise, encouraging, further down the line, and, crucially, supportive of your dreams—certainly sounds attractive; invaluable, even.

But as anyone who has attempted it knows, trying to “get a mentor” is problematic from the start. So how do you make it happen?

Back when I was making a switch to journalism from an earlier career in theater, I was already sold on the value of mentoring—and on the belief that I’d be a friendly, driven, mentee. I identified journalists whose careers I admired, and reached out to them, proposing I become their protégé. In some cases, shooting for warm and personal, I hand-wrote the letters, accepting the risk that this might make the recipients less likely to reply. And they didn’t reply—because what could they have said, these busy people who had never met me and had no reason to invest themselves in my career or my narrative? Mentoring, I now realize, rarely if ever happens that way.

So many people have been given the advice to “get a mentor” that a whole generation of potential mentees, not to mention potential mentors themselves, have become anxious, overburdened, and confused. In such a subtle interaction, proactivity doesn’t always bring rewards. “Official” mentoring schemes proliferate—but can overload their participants with extra work instead of letting them get on with the job in hand. And successful people are still bombarded with abstract requests.

So how do you “get a mentor”? Happily, there’s plenty of good advice out there—just don’t expect instant results.

1. Check that you’re not already being mentored

One good thing to realize first off: Mentoring doesn’t have to be—and often isn’t—a formal relationship. So it’s possible that relationships in or outside of work already might be providing you with some of the things that make mentoring so valuable, like constructive feedback, encouragement, and the chance to talk about goals.

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg tells how she had taken an interest in the career of a young, “enormously talented” employee on her team at Google and had been keen to help her succeed—and so was a bit surprised to hear the employee tell her she had never been mentored. It would be great to get the employee’s take on the situation, but it’s entirely possible that in seeking a more formal, regular relationship, she had missed one that was already beneficial to her—and it’s possible others have, too.

2. Know the difference between a mentor and a sponsor

Sponsors are people in your company who advocate for you directly, particularly to help you win promotions or stretch assignments. Mentoring is much more amorphous. Steve Jobs thought of his Zen master as one of his mentors. For Hillary Clinton, it was a minister who inspired her as a teenager.

Mentors need not be literal. They also don’t have to tick every box—even unstated, informal relationships with several people can work as well as one with an all-knowing guru. During my career transition, I shot for high-flying female journalists, but now realize there was no need to limit my imagination to so narrow a sphere.

When it comes to sponsors, think literally—sponsors should have a direct connection to your daily work; they should be people who are in the room when the big personnel decisions get made. But when it comes to mentors, open your mind to possibility.

3. Check—thoroughly—for potential mentors in your network

“The best mentors are people who you have a very, very good personal chemistry with,” says Alison Esse, co-founder of The Storytellers, a UK-based business consultancy. She credits a former boss, Julia Hingston, with mentoring her through her twenties even though, she said, Hingston “doesn’t know it.” The two are still close friends.

You need to have some affinity with a person before you—or they—can know whether a mentoring relationship is relevant. Searching through the people you already know is therefore a logical first step. Remember, a mentor doesn’t have to be the most famous person in your particular field. Former professors, former bosses, or senior colleagues—and the people they know—are all potential mentors.

It’s still possible to expand your network yourself. Richard Branson, a highly successful entrepreneur and advocate of mentoring, isn’t as down on the “identify and approach” method as some. But he does insist that doing your homework is key. The people you might want to meet are more accessible than ever before because of social networking tools. He suggests finding creative, helpful ways of beginning to form relationships, as opposed to a full frontal attack.

4. Be honest with yourself about whether the relationship fits

If chemistry is key, then its absence is a killer. If you’ve struggled to cultivate a relationship with someone, if the person doesn’t feel truly supportive, or if you can’t express yourself openly to them, then chances are they aren’t your mentor.

“Learn to trust your own gut instinct on who the most appropriate mentor would be,” UK entrepreneur Emma Sinclair once advised in a column on the topic for The Telegraph. An impressive job title doesn’t mean they’ll be the right fit for you, “so take advice, but don’t always follow it,” especially if it doesn’t speak to you, she says.

5. Cultivate relationships for the sake of what you both get out of it

Tanuja Randery, who leads UK and Ireland operations at Schneider Electric, a vast electrics company that does everything from the construction of substations to the equipping of factories, says she found mentors through a mix of design and opportunism.

As a junior management consultant, she once identified a senior client as someone she wanted to work with in the future. In a meeting, he asked about a news report—one which she’d printed out that morning (it was in the days before smartphones), and was able immediately to place in his hands. ”It’s a small thing, but it’s a big thing,” she tells Quartz, because after that the CEO “had me on his radar as someone he actually wanted to get on the team.” They got to know each other, and eventually he offered her a job.

She advises “treating mentoring as a learning discussion,” in which reciprocity is key.

6. Consider alternatives to the “classic” mentor relationship

Getting together with friends or peers for sessions that involve sharing goals and discussing ways to make them happen can be a powerful experience—very different from simply chatting with pals about how work’s going. Semi-formal structures can be helpful, for example following a plan where everyone talks about goals, sets actions, and decides a time to reconvene and provide feedback on how it went. Such a structure—sometimes called “masterminding”, sometimes peer mentoring—provides some of the most useful elements of a one-on-one relationship, including accountability and encouragement, without having to seek out an “expert.”

7. Find some of what you need from non-mentors

At a recent meeting of women executives, Royal Mail CEO Moya Greene, one of only five women in the UK currently heading a FTSE 100 company, was asked to whom she turned for support. Since mentors—for women especially—are such an oft-discussed topic, some were surprised by her answer: “For a long time it was my mother,” she said, describing a woman who’d study up on competitors in the industry so she could better discuss her daughter’s career.

In Lean In, Sandberg tells how she listened to the young woman at Google who wanted to spend at least an hour a week with a mentor, and thought: “That’s not a mentor, that’s a therapist!” Therapists do indeed have their place—especially since mentors, busy as they are and also desirous of enjoying the relationship and getting something out of it, shouldn’t be treated strictly as a sounding board solely for your benefit. If that’s what you need, consider paying a trained professional for the service.

Though my letters didn’t nab me a mentor, a decision around the same time to see a dedicated careers counselor was one of the best moves I made, giving me excellent clarity on what path to choose next.

8. Mentor someone else

It’s rare to meet a successful person in the business world who, when asked, will say they’ve never mentored anyone. Those relationships can happen at almost any stage. A recent graduate might share early-career wisdom with students. A friend of mine who writes fiction for teenagers also teaches creative writing to children through a charity.

As one way into an arena that can seem exclusive and mystical, actually making the most of one’s own skills to help someone else must be up there as a pretty helpful tool for understanding the process. Warren Buffett sought out the mentorship of Benjamin Graham, a writer on investments who also taught him at Columbia Business School. And Buffett, in turn, has been a mentor to others, like Bill Gates.

9. Time is your friend

De-fetishizing the idea of having one perfect mentor is essential. Life might have presented some highly successful people with influential mentors early on who helped shape their career. But we can choose to see some of that as post-rationalization: Of course people who had great mentors think their mentoring relationship was an important factor in their success.

And what about those without one great mentor? Who may have simply gained support from a loving spouse, or a good group of friends, or a nice team of colleagues? Maybe they’re just not so evangelical on the subject.

Whatever getting a mentor is, it’s not quick. It’s not, in itself, an action. It’s like finding love: You can put yourself in the way of it, encourage it, be ready, and be open. But you can’t force the issue. Personally, I’m not sure if I’ve found my mentors yet, but at least now I know it’s not a goal, nor an end point. It’s a long game.