I can’t tell you how many times in the course of my consulting work—no, I take that back—in the course of my entire and not-short career as a designer, design firm executive, and consultant to creative professionals, that I've had someone convey to me their desire for a mentor.
This mentor will descend from their throne on Mount Olympus, or else allow you to worship at their feet. They will bestow upon you all the career benefits you now feel are lacking. They will impart wisdom and sagacious career advice, miraculously enabling you to rise above your current station, and will wipe away the personal imperfections you secretly fear are blocking your success.
If a mentor is as wonderful as all that, who wouldn’t want one? And who wouldn’t beg, plead, and network their hearts out in the hope of finding one?
Alas, that's not what a mentor is, and that’s not what a mentor does. And while I'm exaggerating (a little) for emphasis, the point is that many people still have unrealistic ideas about how mentors can impact their careers. And that can doom your search for one.
Here's a look at where you're going wrong and what to do instead.
When you’re looking for career help, you might think you need someone who's dealt with all the possible work experiences a person can possibly go through. Usually, that would be someone who's many years older than you.
And it's true that seniority is far from a bad quality to look for in a mentor. People with more years and experience might even have more time to devote to helping. But peer mentors can be just as effective even if they aren't senior to you. They’ve likely had parallel experiences and can understand what you’re going through and share their own perspectives. Don't discount how valuable that can be.
There are potentially excellent mentors right in front of you, but you might not be seeing them. Maybe it’s because you’re thinking of a mentor as someone remote from you in age and experience, or maybe it’s because you haven’t considered talking about your career with someone who knows you personally.
But it’s possible you’ve got the right mentor for the right moment among your own friends and family. Someone who knows you outside of a work environment may actually be able to offer insights based on your personality and a broad perspective of your current life situation. Those things might escape a mentor who knows you less well.
I recently met with an award-winning designer who was applying for a higher position with her longtime employer. She mentioned she felt overwhelmed by the advice she was getting from a mentor. Curious but confused, I asked what kind of help she was asking for. Turns out she'd engaged the mentor to help her with something she didn't need at all: preparing answers to the most global interview questions—stuff like, "How would your best friend describe you?" I reminded her that the firm was already familiar with her and her work and to tighten her focus on that—both with her mentor and in her interview.
Life is made up of moments. When you’re seeking a mentor, think in terms of what you need for this moment. Write a short, focused list of goals for the ideal mentorship you need right now. For example, focus on exactly what should be in your portfolio, or how to frame your most significant accomplishments on a job interview. Your mentor should help you keep this focus and practice active listening by summarizing what you’re saying, asking questions, and not overriding or interrupting.
It’s easy to misstep when looking for a mentor. Many people look for mentors when they anticipate changes or challenges coming—since changes and challenges make us fearful. You probably already know (as research has also suggested) that you don't make the best decisions while you're afraid. And a good mentor can help you see beyond fear.
When you’re asking someone to mentor you, keep your communication brief and to the point. No pandering, begging, or false flattery. Here's my recommended template:
I hope this message finds you well. I’m thinking of making a career move, and I need a little advice on strategy. To be honest, I’m stressed out and could really use some external perspective. Do you have some time in the next few days to hear me out and share some advice? I would truly appreciate it.
(Here are some additional tips when it comes down to asking in person.)
Look for a mentor who can:
- ask clarifying questions
- support you without barging in with advice
- remind you of your strengths
- challenge assumptions gently
Finally, don’t expect or demand a lengthy mentoring relationship. That might work out, but one-time, focused meetings can accomplish a lot. Short engagements can also allow you to pick new mentors for each stage of your career. After all, what you really need isn't a mentor who can propel your entire career—you just need the right perspective for the moment.
Ted Leonhardt is a designer and illustrator, and former global creative director of FITCH Worldwide. His specialized approach to negotiation helps creative workers build on their strengths and own their value in the marketplace. Follow Ted on Twitter at @tedleonhardt.