Countless articles stress the importance of finding mentors. But how do you tell whether a successful person is mentor material, or just someone to admire from afar?
We asked the experts to help identify the traits that make great mentors. If the following sounds like a tall order, then remember that you don’t necessarily have to find all of these traits in a single person. Successful people are often very busy, so having a personal board of directors can get you get the advice you need while spreading the questions across multiple people.
But in a general sense, here are the traits that make great for excellent mentor material.
If a potential mentor sees you as competition, it could undermine the relationship or color their advice. “[You want] someone who’s secure in their own right so they don’t see you as a threat,” says Bertrand Gervais, author of, Who’s in Your Top Hive? Your Guide to Finding Your Success Mentors.
Finding a mentor from a different industry or background can also help, so they’re “far removed enough that it’s not perceived as competition,” Gervais says. Lessons about office politics or general business often transcend industries, so you don’t need someone who does exactly what you do.
Someone who’s ascended the corporate ladder through generosity and kindness is likely a better candidate to mentor you than someone with a cutthroat attitude who doesn’t make a habit of paying it forward. “You want to find somebody who is interested in sharing their experience, is generous with their time and advice, and wants to mentor and help somebody else,” says Lindsey Pollak, The Hartford’s Millennial workplace expert and author of, Becoming the Boss: New Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders.
At the same time, though, you need to set realistic expectations for your mentor’s time and avoid straining their generosity. “Maybe a 15-minute call to discuss specific questions,” Gervais says. “It’s a major impact for you, but not a big-time commitment for your mentor.”
Sometimes success comes from being in the right place at the right time without a lot of strategy or self-analysis. “A lot of people think that because someone is successful, they understand how they got there,” Gervais says. “‘How do I become a VP at this firm?’ They might not know.” Someone who’s self-aware enough to understand the reasons behind their own success may be better equipped to advise you. That’s why Gervais says you should look for mentors based on “wisdom, not title.”
Often we need tough love more than cheerleading, so a straight-shooting mentor can be more valuable than a people-pleaser. “A challenge I hear a lot in mentoring is someone who says, ‘You’re terrific’ [without giving any suggestions for improvement],” Pollak says.
We may not always want to hear that our investor pitch or user interface needs work, but it’s better to hear it from a trusted adviser in private.
Specific feedback (“Your business plan needs more concrete numbers”) trumps the generic (“Just keep at it”). “You can tell by your conversation if they’re specific, or in how they tweet or give public speeches,” Pollak says. “If you ask them for a casual piece of advice, how specific are they?”
Fortunately, this is one area where mentees could help steer mentors by asking more specific questions. For instance, “What specifically can I do in this situation?” Pollak asks. “What specific changes would you make to my résumé?”
You need to feel comfortable taking to your mentor about a challenge without fearing they’ll use it against you or tell your boss. Gervais suggests choosing a mentor who’s a few steps removed from you at your company or even outside your company. “When my mentor sits right next to my boss, I don’t feel comfortable [opening up] if he’s buddy-buddy with the person who decides if I get a promotion or not,” he says.
However, even if you trust your mentor to be discreet, Pollak advises against oversharing private details. “There are no guarantees, no signing of a confidentiality agreement,” she says. “Be cautious about what you share with the other person.”
You might relate well to someone who’s a more accomplished version of yourself, but it’s valuable to seek advice from people who bring different experiences and opinions. “You’re going to be interacting with people with very diverse backgrounds, experiences, and personality types, and part of navigating the workplace is learning how to work with people are who different from you,” Pollak says. “A mentor can be a trusted voice to understand perspectives that are different from your own.”
Susan Johnston has covered personal finance and business for publications including the Boston Globe, Entrepreneur.com, and USNews.com.