Now, don’t get me wrong—mentorship is one of the biggest keys to success. But believe it or not, there is a right and a wrong way to seek out a mentor and build a mutually beneficial relationship. In many cases, the best mentoring happens without the formal label “mentoring.” Nobody asked anybody to go steady, nobody sent a note saying, “Would you be my mentor?” followed by yes, no, and maybe boxes to check. Questions were asked, thoughts were shared, and advice was given. Voilà, an effortless mentor relationship is born.
Here, eight successful people dish on how—and how not—to find a mentor.
For me, mentorship is vital. I absolutely attribute a lot of my success to being in a position where I had a lot of great mentors, people I could go to and ask for advice. The quality of your mentors is really important as a young individual in the workplace, because it really shapes your perspective on how work should be done. For example, if you have a mentor that isn’t the most forward thinking or honest, I think that can be a bad thing. I’ve been very blessed to have had mentors that are incredibly honest and transparent and are quality leaders, and I think it has really helped shape who I am as a person.
—Alexa von Tobel, CEO and founder of LearnVest
One key bit of advice I would give is not necessarily to look for someone that you can build a relationship with, but look for someone who you can ask a very simple question to, who can reply to an email very easily to you. What is it that you need? Don’t look so much on, let’s sit down and have coffee or let’s have a cocktail, but what is the one thing that you need this particular person that you’re seeking a mentor from to actually guide you through? Because I think that’s what has helped me a lot is when there’s a certain question that I have, and I kind of point it to the right person that I know who can actually answer it. It takes the pressure off the person who is being asked.
—Janet Mock, New York Times bestselling author, advocate and host of MSNBC’s So POPular
In the 35 to 45 [age range], you have mothers who operate and think very different than dads. Why? Because mothers want and need time at home with their children. That time after work is precious, so no matter how amazing the event is, they probably won’t come because family matters more. So when I’m networking, I can’t think like a 29-year-old single guy. I have to think like the target I’m trying to attract. The same thing applies to young Levo women. Don’t approach them in the way that’s most comfortable for you. Approach them where they’re at and with them in mind. For example, I’ve found that coffees aren’t really the most effective way to meet people in certain demographics. It’s imperative that we all try to find alternative and new ways to connect with people. That’s a very important lesson I’ve learned over the years.
—Kevin Conroy Smith, founder of The Number Project
[Related: How To Be A Mentee A Mentor Would Die For]
It’s critical to celebrate and lift your peers. People are chasing potential mentors, and we should always have a mentor or two, but support and rock with your peers. That girl standing next to you could be the one to hire you in five years, or could be the one contact at a major brand whose sponsor dollars you need. It’s a tiny planet and relationships are everything!
—Geneva S. Thomas, founder and editor-in-chief of Jawbreaker.nyc
My mentors found me working. My boss was my mentor when I got my first full-time job when I was 25. My first boss literally taught me how to order from restaurants because I was a black girl from Inglewood, California, and I had never had sushi, I had never been to Mr. Chow, I had never been to a restaurant on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, but with this new job I had meetings there. She helped me with everything from my skin to my hair to what to order. She bought me my first gift card to Barney’s; I remember thinking, “What is Barney’s?” The sheer fact that I had to go into Barney’s was a mentoring experience. It was exposure, which I believe is your greatest education. Your mentor usually finds you doing great work. People think that mentors come with angel wings and fall from the heavens: “I am your mentor.” It’s usually not like that. It’s usually somebody who helps you in a certain aspect of your life and grooms you.
—Myleik Teele, founder of curlBOX
[Related: Finding A Mentor: How It Really Works]
Search for role models you can look up to and people who take an interest in your career. But here’s an important warning: You don’t have to have mentors who look like you. Had I been waiting for a black, female Soviet specialist mentor, I would still be waiting. Most of my mentors have been old white men, because they were the ones who dominated my field.
—Condoleeza Rice, director of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business’s Global Center for Business and the Economy, and former U.S. secretary of state
Being a mentor is about just believing in somebody and caring enough to share your knowledge. My mentors don’t necessarily have the answer to everything, but what they can do is to share wisdom and experiences. When I meet someone that I want to be my mentor, I just want them to tell me stories. I just want to sit with them and soak up as much history from their lives as I can. There is this richness in history and the wisdom that comes from experience that trumps any kind of smarts.
To me, that’s what mentorship is: drawing from that wisdom. When someone who is 25 is asking me questions now at 34, that’s what they are asking for. They aren’t asking me to just tell them exactly what to do. They are asking me to care enough to give them the proper story for what they are looking for in their life at that time. Because that’s exactly what I ask for. I tell my mentors exactly what’s going on with me and I ask, “Is there anything in your life that you can draw from to help me?” They’ve been there. I want to learn from the mistakes of the past. I want to learn from the successes.
—Scooter Braun, founder of School Boy Records
Mentorship is about being able to empower each other, being willing to listen, give advice and coach people. In so many facets of my career, mentorship and the idea of empowering each other has been a huge factor in my success. Whether it was fundraising or general advice, finding people who are willing to talk to you about the process and believe in you and share their experiences has been a huge help to me. It’s like a sisterhood. I love the opportunity to mentor other people and share my experiences, and hopefully have people learn from my mistakes and successes.
—Jamie Rutenberg, COO of Charm & Chain
Mentorship is not a life vest. You cannot reach and claw for people to save you from the deep end, or even save you from the shallow end— some people are looking for mentors in the shallow end, not even doing anything that warrants a mentor. It should be mutually beneficial. I believe that if you’re looking for someone to help you and you’re not bringing anything to the table, that’s really not cool. You should always bring something to your mentor’s life. My mentor has never paid for a meal with me—I pay for every single meal because I appreciate her. She was the one who pushed me to stop selling myself short. She would say, “Myliek, you’re better than this.” She pushed me until I finally believed it.
—Myleik Teele, founder of curlBOX
This article originally appeared on Levo and is reprinted with permission.