Feed Your Career Octopus: Tips For Finding (And Keeping) Awesome Mentors

Research shows that mentors are an important and valuable asset for career planning. Everyone from Martha Stewart to Kid President to your high school English teacher can fill the role. Here's advice on developing those coveted relationships.

You've just landed your first job.

Or it's your second, or third, or you made partner, or created your own job and taken the plunge of starting your own business. Whatever the case may be, what is arguably harder than landing a position is finding people who can and will professionally bolster you. People who will support your cause and career. What you need, to borrow from the show Girls, is a Spirit Guide.

You need a mentor.

Actually, everyone needs a mentor. It's proven that mentoring helps with salaries and happiness. This doesn't have to be in the professional sense either. Maybe you have friends that mentor you about breakups, or a friend that you can talk to about your family.

However, professional mentors are just as crucial. It's invaluable to have someone you can bounce ideas off of about your career, and then how that fits into your life.

I am lucky that in my two years since I started my digital PR company I've found a whole host of mentors, with different roles and skill sets, all brilliant and shining and impressive. I think of them as a Career Octopus—each arm or mentor brings something different and wonderful to the table.

Finding and keeping someone in your corner is difficult. Here are a few tips that I used in finding and keeping a mentor (let's hope mine stick around!).

Have a Hero and Do Your Research

Everyone has a professional hero, whether it be a titan like Hillary Clinton or a brilliant local businessperson. Pick a person you'd like to be your mentor, and figure out the best way to get to him or her. Whether or not you get there, there are often people along the way that are actually going to be more helpful. It also doesn't have to be someone older, just someone whom you admire.

Research is key. What has this person written recently? What has her career trajectory been? If you do end up being connected, be sure to have read all the important pieces so you don't look like an amateur. Sometimes meeting your hero can fall short of expectations too, so be prepared for that. It might be someone, as I said above, along the way that you didn't mythologize that is of more help.

When Bethenny Frankel talks about her business inspirations and mentors, she always goes back to working for her idol Martha Stewart on a reality show. She came in second, and in turn learned more about herself and what she needed. Instead of wanting to be Martha Stewart, she realized she wanted to transform her work from a services industry to a multi-million-dollar product.

A Mentor Doesn't Have to Be in Your Field

I've had great mentors and advisers that have tremendous business savvy, but have nothing to do with digital media or communications. Sometimes this is actually helpful—given that this person is able to see the broader picture of your career and business. A lot of those principles are universal. I'm a very small-picture person, so it's important for me to have someone who helps me see the frame. And the wall. And the house.

Choose someone whose career and drive you admire, and ignore the industry. It might be someone you know socially, or a friend of a friend. Ask to have a conversation, because you never know what could happen. I got fantastic advice from a friend in finance and insurance. While the content was different, the basic business principles he taught me, as well as a lot about business interactions, apply to my business every day.

Richard Branson has mentors for every different area he works in:

Dropping the "M" Word

I've read a lot of back and forth about whether or not you should drop the "M" word. (And no, I don't mean "marriage," though that needs to be dropped carefully too.) The truth is, this is sort of a marriage, but it's very important to be aware of what this person can offer you. "Mentor" feels like very big shoes to fill. I've been on the other side, and it can feel like a lot of pressure and give you the opposite result—the person might feel overwhelmed. Instead try something like, "I really value your advice, would you be open to continuing the conversation?" Try to play it cool. Whatever you do, don't use the phrase "pick your brain." It immediately sounds like you want to use someone.

It's also really important to know your audience. It's better to be specific, so that you're not giving this person a huge task. I've gained more partnerships and mentors by specifically calling out one project, like an event or campaign that a person has worked on. Blanket admiration is often too murky.

Be Sensitive and Realistic to Time

Everyone is busy. Period. We're busier than ever—24/7 schedules, personal lives, no personal lives, working-playing-eating-drinking. But it's very important to be cognizant once you get a mentor of how much time he or she has to give you. A lot of times, these relationships evolve organically too.

That being said, follow up with what you're up to. A great mentor of mine told me that she once hired a guy whom she mentored, two years after he first reached out. It was his consistent updates (about every other month) that kept him top of her mind. And she was impressed with his diligence. You're not annoying someone. (Within reason.)

Mentorship is a Two-Way Street

Just because someone is more "successful" than you are doesn't mean that he or she doesn't want advice back the other way. Some of the college students I've mentored have great ideas that are just as important as people whose careers I look up to.

Everyone needs a fresh perspective, respective of age or years or experience. After all, some of the best advice I've gotten recently is from Kid President.

Related Story: The New Face Of Modern Mentorship

Meredith Fineman is the CEO of FinePoint digital PR. You can read more of her writing here.

[Image: Flickr user Lecates]

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8 Comments

  • Samantha_jking

    I have been seriously considering getting a mentor, and am completely unsure how to go about this process.  Thanks for the info! You've definitely planted some seeds for me.

  • Dolores DeGiacomo

    I've acted as mentor to a few of my former students and though I'm a paid coach, mentoring my students has always been an incredible experience for me.  I suspect because I do it out of a desire to give just a little more to those who've already paid quite a bit of money for tuition. Interestingly, I've found that mentoring these young adults on my time for free results in greater motivation on their part (they know what my day job is), greater success for them long term, and, most importantly, they get to move toward a career they really are passionate about.  I highly recommend getting or being a mentor.
    www.ddlifecoach.com

  • Kédar Iyer

    Nice post outlining the responsibilities of both, the expert and fresher. Would you consider becoming an online career mentor on Interview Exchange community @GapJumpers:twitter ?

    Mentors ask work related questions and give out professional endorsements to enthusiasts. Youngsters love the access and learning.

  • Enrique Jorge

    Great tips about mentoring. Especially the one about avoiding the word "Mentor" and simply having a meaningful conversation with someone you admire. Or admires you. Thanks

  • Carole Lewis

    I love the idea of having different mentors from different backgrounds and for different areas of our lives.   I think the key to success is to be open to learning, learning from others in our own industry, those in a different industry different walks of life - and being open to learning from people we mentor.   There is no need for boundaries when it comes to learning.

  • Cecilia Harry

    Finding mentors and building your own personal "board of directors" is just as important as the right educational background, professional experience, and skill set when it comes to getting where you want to go. For me, it's great to have a handful of people I trust that I can go to with different needs.

  • Adithya Hariram

    True... my life is much better because of the feedback from my mentors :-)

  • Jayson Feltner

    This is great.  I love mentoring for it's two-way benefits.  I learn just as much from mentors as I do mentoring to others.