Do You Need a Career Mentor?

How to identify and ask a mentor to help guide your professional development.

Ask most successful people if you need a mentor and their answer will likely be a resounding yes. A mentor can offer you guidance and support at every step of your career, whether you’re just starting out and want help reaching your potential, struggling to find the right path or navigating the challenges of a new leadership opportunity.

“If you don’t already have one, then you need one,” says Michelle Flint, a Florida-based career coach who has written extensively about mentors. “A mentor is key for anyone interested in having a meaningful, more satisfying career.”

Yet, while many of us instinctively understand how a mentor might help — from offering career guidance to providing support and professional connections — finding one can seem daunting. First, you have to know what you’re looking to gain from a relationship with a mentor. Then you can identify the right person and cultivate a relationship you’ll value for years to come.

What Do You Need from a Mentor?

Before you seek out a career mentor, you need to do some soul searching of your own. “You want to determine what you even need a mentor for,” Flint explains. For example, if you’ve just accepted your first management position, you may want a mentor who can help you be a better leader. Or, if you’ve just left your job to start a new business, you might need a mentor with experience in your field and entrepreneurship.

To start, Flint says you should ask yourself questions that will help you focus on your priorities, values and willingness to accept feedback. You might ask yourself questions like:

  • What exactly do I hope to learn?
  • What type of person can I take advice from?
  • What are my values?
  • What are my goals for this year?

The answers to these questions will help you figure out the right mentor for you — someone who shares or understands your values, and who can offer advice in a constructive, personal way.

Find Your Match

Start your search by investigating whether your current place of employment offers a mentorship program, or ask your HR department for assistance. If your employer doesn’t provide a formal program, look for colleagues in your organization or industry who you admire and who inspire you. Ideally, your potential mentor is someone who you already know, who is several years ahead of you in their own career and able to offer advice from their work experience.

If you don’t have a mentor in mind, try reaching out to a local mentor matching service or try SCORE, a national nonprofit with a robust business mentoring program. Contacting someone you may not already know to ask if they will be your mentor can be a challenge — you won’t know if that person is willing to take on that role. But Flint assures “it is possible to identify a mentor that you don’t personally know — but you have to build a relationship first.”

If you’ve identified someone in your industry who you would like to reach out to, use LinkedIn to determine if you have any shared connections or know someone who could facilitate an introduction. Then take small steps to see if this person is truly a mentor candidate. For example, first email them to introduce yourself, and ask the person a specific question related to their work or career. You’ll quickly get a sense of the person’s interest in connecting.

Cultivating the Relationship

Outside of formal mentoring programs, a lot of mentor relationships develop organically. Flint advises beginning your conversations with a series of small asks, even with someone you know well. Instead of asking the person to be your mentor right away, ask them for advice or insight on a few specific career-related questions you may have. If you’re meeting in person, set a time limit and respect the person’s time by sticking to it. After your conversation, consider the following questions:

  • Did he/she seem willing to offer advice?
  • Was he/she interested in being helpful?

If the conversation was productive, and the individual is responsive after the fact, “you [might] just continue with small asks,” Flint proposes. Or, you may reach a point where you feel comfortable asking this person to be your mentor in a more formal way.

Flint also recommends finding opportunities to give back to your mentor from the very beginning, so that the relationship benefits both parties. There are many ways you can provide value, even if you’re early on in your career. For instance, you could facilitate an introduction to someone your mentor wants to meet, share an interesting article regarding something your mentor was discussing, or simply offer support. “I realized that my mentor also had her own challenges, and that I could be a good listener for her,” Flint says. “That provided value.”

Once you’ve laid the foundation, your relationship with your mentor can be as formal or as casual as you would like. You might prefer regular meetings with pre-arranged topics of discussion, or choose to reach out on an as-needed basis. Regardless, taking the time to find a great mentor can help you achieve your career goals and find personal success.