7 steps to finding and keeping a mentor

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Those who have mentors are twice as likely to be promoted as those who don’t, says Ellen Fagenson Eland, professor at George Mason University and 2003 Winner of the Mentoring Best Practices Award. So start taking the mentoring process very seriously — it should be a cornerstone of your overall career strategy. Here’s a plan to get you started:

Step 1: Identify a potential mentor. This person can be any age, but the most effective mentor is someone approximately five years ahead of you in your career. A person at this level will know how to navigate your organization at the spot you’re in, and the person will remember what it is like to be where you are. This person should be someone you admire and someone who has good communication skills.

Step 2: Have good questions. Would-be mentors are most receptive to people who ask good questions. What makes a good question? It should reveal that you are both directed and driven. But the question should also demonstrate that you understand the mentor’s expertise and you can use it well. So, a question like, “What should I do with my life?” would be out.

Step 3: Don’t expect miracles. A mentor is not going to rescue your whole career, even if she can. People want to mentor a rising star, so look like you’re on track when you ask for help. Ask, “What skills should I develop to earn an education policy analyst job with a Senator?” rather than, “Can you get me a job with a Senator?” even if the mentor is Caroline Kennedy.

Step 4: Be a good listener. This person is not your therapist. You ask a question, and then listen. If the mentor needs to know more, he’ll ask. Do not tell your life story. It is not interesting. If it were, you’d be writing a book or doing standup, right? If you find yourself talking more than the mentor, then get a therapist before you scare your mentor away.

Step 5: Prove you’re serious. You can demonstrate that you’re hungry for counsel by implementing the advice your mentor gave, showing the result, and then going back for more. So, if your mentor suggests you get on project X, get yourself there, do a good job, and report back to your mentor that you are grateful for the advice because you were able to learn a lot and shine. Your mentor will be much more willing to give you her time and energy after you’ve proven yourself to be a quick and eager study.

Step 6: Always be on the lookout. One is not enough. Each person needs a few mentors, because no mentor lasts forever, and each has a different expertise. Two of my best mentors were very different from each other. One helped me to fit in with the guys so that I could succeed at a company where I was the only woman in management. Another mentor helped me to keep my sanity and my focus when balancing work and children seemed totally impossible.

Step 7: Give back. The best way to learn how to rope in a mentor is to be a mentor yourself. You’ll find out first hand what makes a protégée annoying, which will, in turn, make you a less annoying protégée. You’ll also discover why helping someone else grow is so rewarding, which will give you the courage to ask people to help you.

24 replies
  1. Jasmine
    Jasmine says:

    Hi Penelope, just want to share with you on my recent experience related to mentoring. I got to know a person who works for my organization in another location. Through a couple of interations in meetings and individual conversations I found her to be very people oriented and experienced specifically in the organization we belong to. One month ago I wrote an email expressing wish to be a protegee of her. I thought the email was written appropriately but got no return for more than one month. It was exactly when I was thinking I probably did something stupid I got a note from her which was very positive and offering. We are going to have phone conversation next week.. I’m yet to see how this turns out but the article you wrote here does trigger thinking on how we could proactively manage good mentoring relationships. So thanks to you and will keep you updated on my real life efforts:-).

  2. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Jasmine, congratulations on taking that first step, which, of course, is always the hardest. It sounds like she is very open to helping you.

    The phone call is a good time for you to have a very specific agenda, by the way. So that your potential mentor can feel right away that she has something to offer you.

    And, on the off-chance that this doesn’t turn out well, you should feel great about reaching out to someone to mentor you. Not all mentors are great, but all efforts to get a mentor are positive steps.

  3. dog
    dog says:

    Hi Penelope,
    DO you think it is appropriate to attempt to find a mentor in the place you work (in the same professional field)? Wouldn’t there be a “conflict of interest” with that potential mentor?

    * * * * * *

    Finding a mentor in one’s own office is totally appropriate. It is in everyone’s best interest if people you work with are getting the help they need to be their best selves and perform at their best capacity at the office.  The person you directly report to is already responsible for your performance, so in order to expand the scope of the help you’re getting, look for a mentor who you don’t report to.


  4. Miriam Bolanos
    Miriam Bolanos says:

    Hi, Thank you for your informative information, I have put some of your suggestions to practice and have found the results very rewarding. I would like to add that when your boss is having a stressful day and they all do, Just stop and take a quick break to breath in some fresh air, this can be done by a simple walk to the bathroom or the coffee pot. The point is take a brain break to gather your thoughts and refocus. Remember your boss is human after all. I say something supportive on the way out of my bosses office.

  5. Mukesh Nauhwar
    Mukesh Nauhwar says:


    Thanks for the article. It’s quite interesting to read what you’ve written about having a mentor in work life but do you think without a mentor things wouldnt work out for an individual or would it be still workable but difficult?
    I’m one of those individuals who never had a mentor but thankfully doing well in my career. Though I realize that I’m a mentor to a lot of people in my life but just wondering what am I losing if I dont have one?

    Thanks in advance…

    * * * * * * *

    Mukesh, I’m surprised that if you are mentoring someone else, and adding value to their career, that it would not be clear to you that you also could have a mentor adding value to your own career. If you are meeting all your goals right now, then your goals for yourself are too low. If you are not meeting all your goals, then find a mentor to help you.

    A good book to read to understand the sadness and futility of trying to navigate this world with no help from others is Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi.


  6. exact hire
    exact hire says:

    Having a mentor made all the difference for me in my career. And being a mentor made all the difference again.
    Now I am retired, but I meet once a week with and tutor a young man who is working on his GED high school diploma. We can all get more out of life by giving more to others. And young careerists should realize they really ought to become someone else’s opportunity to give.

    P.S. My son, just getting started in the world, swears by the philosophy in the book, “Never Eat Alone,” by Keith Ferrazzi. He has had lunch with the founder of TOMS Shoes and dinner at the world-famous Magic Castle (a very exclusive private club in Hollywood) . . . just by asking.

  7. Lincoln
    Lincoln says:

    Great advice Penelope! I’ve been looking into being a job recruiter and I’ve discovered you really do need to have connections and know everything from mentoring contacts to the definition of employee onboarding. This is a great article I’m going to bookmark for my files!

  8. aurora
    aurora says:

    Thank you Penelope. that’s one of the most useful article I’ll keep during my career path, or better, my career-path PLANNING.

    As for me, I’m a young 26 yrs Junior doctor From Tuscany, I’d like to work abroad, UK. I’ve already been there. I’d join an clinical intership (not formal, but so important anyway). I met two “key” people – a director an a consultant – crucial to ask information. Or maybe more that information, who knows? In the future.. they reflect the “Good mentors” features you listed, definetely :)

    I also figured out why I find so hard keep in touch with crucial people for my career. I’M ALWAYS AFRAID TO BUG THEM :) EVEN for questions/issues which cost them small efforts. I also often feel like I SHOULD give details about me when I meet them: Why I’m there, why I gave up something or someone else… MY LIFE STORY. Exactly. You made me smile reading about it at the point 4. (Be a good listener).


  9. Lujie Chen (@chen_lujie)
    Lujie Chen (@chen_lujie) says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Thanks for brilliant post!

    I especially like point 5 when you talked about ‘proving that you are serious’. I’ve been interviewing a couple of mentors for my book ‘Seek to Keep’ and I find that a common comment from these mentors is how important and gratifying it is for the mentees do what they say they will do, and constantly follow up with results.

    An additional comment about your first point. We find that the best mentors are a few steps ahead and have time for you. If you approach someone who is too far ahead in your career, often the advices wouldn’t be too applicable and it’s difficult to engage the mentor to continue to spend time with you.

  10. Trevor Ambrose
    Trevor Ambrose says:

    I love number 7 – give back. You really appreciate your mentor when you mentor someone else. Almost like appreciating your parents when you have children of your own.

    This article sparked something in me to search for a good mentor and I thank you for a great post.

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