Finding a Mentor at Every Stage of Your Career

It’s easy to imagine a mentorship as a one-way street: A seasoned professional guides a new hire through a complex and nuanced professional world. They part ways after a set amount of time. But mentorship is a mutually beneficial relationship that doesn’t necessarily end after a promotion or career progression.

“There is no arrival,” said Dr. Darren Good, assistant professor of applied behavioral science at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School. “Even when you’re in the C-suite, you’re working through challenges all the time.”

In fact, 84 percent of CEOs interviewed by the Harvard Business Review said that mentors helped them avoid costly mistakes in their careers as executives.

However, being a mentee requires just as much work as being a mentor.

“The mentor can give someone advice, they can provide introductions, they can really help,” said Janice Omadeke, CEO of The Mentor Method. “But it’s up to the mentee to own that relationship and take that advice and put it toward their careers.”

But with seemingly unlimited advice online, the process can be overwhelming. Good and Omadeke offered recommendations based on their expertise in executive coaching and mentorships.

How to Ask for a Mentorship

Looking for a trusted confidante at the intersection of seasoned professionalism and candid relatability can be intimidating for someone who fears rejection. However, don’t let that be a barrier. “You’ve gained nothing if you don’t put yourself out there,” said Good.

Some mentors don’t even realize they’re mentoring a colleague, but Good said there’s merit in establishing a clear and formal request. He offers these tips:

Don’t wait for a relationship to form naturally.
Though there’s much to be said about organic connections, waiting passively to find a mentor can waste precious time that could be spent meeting with advisors.

Be clear about what you’re looking for.
Scheduling an informational interview is a step in the right direction, but a clear request is best: Ask for a regular meeting during which you can seek advice about a specific goal or idea. People are more likely to respond willingly if they know what they’re agreeing to do.

Seek who you aspire to be.
Look for people who have expertise or positions in industries that align with your career aspirations, and ask if they can give advice about making strides in that particular professional environment.

Reach out to multiple people.
Spending time with several mentors ensures a variety of perspectives from companies outside your own and increases the likelihood of talking to someone who has had a similar experience as you.

When searching for the right person, Good said it’s important to balance experience with relatability.

Someone with more experience, “who can really understand some of the complexities of getting to the next level, [can] support [you] in thinking that through,” Good said.

Where and How to Find a Mentor at Every Stage of a Career 

The New and Young Professional

Young professionals can feel intimidated by the process of seeking their first mentors. With little professional experience, it’s difficult to know who can assist you and where your career can take you.

Though the fear of being turned down can discourage recent college graduates from reaching out, Omadeke said there’s value in learning from rejection and repeated efforts.

“It might just be a matter of timing or bandwidth, because people who are asked to be mentors are oftentimes asked a lot,” she said. Instead of taking it personally, she recommends moving on to the next person, or asking for clarity about their response.

“Ask them, ‘Was there something that you’d like to see that would make you more comfortable with that’” she continued, “or maybe starting off with something more simple, like meeting once a month.”

Be open to advice from your immediate manager,
but don’t let them be your only mentor. Many young professionals will develop a positive, nurturing relationship with their first manager, but there’s a benefit to a perspective from someone with less of a stake in your current job.

Network within your office.
Though recent college graduates might not yet have large networks, it’s likely their senior colleagues have myriad contacts from other organizations or past positions. It’s completely reasonable to ask for an introduction that will lead to more connections in the future.

Stay in touch with previous professors and supervisors from old internships.
With social media platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter, it’s easier than ever to maintain contact with former colleagues.

The Mid-Career Manager

Middle-level professionals are uniquely positioned to leverage the perspectives of peers as well as those above and below their status in the workplace. Cultivating a group of trusted mentors from all different levels allows you to identify new developments in an industry or reevaluate a path of growth.

Take advice from direct reports.
There is no age limit on a mentor; younger professionals can offer a fresh perspective on an old problem and may have a different grasp on digital technology.

Don’t look for a match based on demographic similarities.
Just because someone is of a similar age, gender, or race doesn’t make them a good mentor. Look for people with expertise, skills, or accomplishments that mirror your career goals.

Reevaluate what you want from your relationships.
After several years in the workforce, it’s likely your professional and personal aspirations have evolved. Are the people around you still helping you? What new areas would you like to explore? 

The Seasoned C-Suite Executive

“It can be very lonely at the top,” Good said. Executives have to navigate unique and complicated levels of stress from managing the expectations of employees, investors, or a board of directors.

“Who are you going to talk to?” Good said. “You need people in your life you can draw wisdom from.”

You don’t have to do it all alone.
The expectation of effortlessness can be harmful to executives whose companies depend on them to lead discussions and champion change. Release yourself from the premise that you have to be perfect, and focus on how you can keep learning.

Learn from younger professionals.
Younger employees might have less experience but know a lot more about the nuances of the digital world you’re operating in. Like mid-career managers, executives can ask for their perspectives as a candid way to establish a sense of humility and reinforce the potential for growth.

Go beyond executive coaching.
While formal coaching is valuable for executives, a mentor relationship isn’t bound by financial transactions or time and can continue to flourish after a session is over. 

Give and Take: A Mutually Beneficial Relationship

There are many opportunities for mentees to show the same level of effort as a mentor in fostering a supportive professional relationship. Good said mentees should come to meetings prepared with questions or key topics they’d like to discuss.

Omadeke added that mentees should be expected to set up meeting times with consistency and flexibility. She also recommended professionals of all backgrounds consider the most fundamental benefit of mentorship during their search: human connection.

“Trying to connect with someone as a person first is very beneficial,” Omadeke said. “Try to understand them, get to know them, be respectful of their time.”

It’s completely normal to expect a mentor to ask a mentee for support at some point. Mentors have spent energy nurturing and cultivating a relationship with a person they see to be deserving of time and effort, and they might likewise need advice with their own problems.

“Everyone should think about their career in terms of relationships,” Good said. Doing so can remind people of the mutual benefits in professional connections, the importance of good will, and the opportunities for broader horizons. 

Citation for this content: Business@Pepperdine, the online Master of Science in Management and Leadership from Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School.