What makes a great mentor?

Mentors make us see the potential inside ourselves

If engines power cars, then mentors power careers. They are the lifeblood of the professional world, transforming rookies into athletes and athletes into superstars. I would not be where I am today, professionally or personally, without mentors.

My mentors have coached me through promotion negotiations, next play conversations, and challenging workplace interactions. They’re simultaneously a sounding board and a north star.

Without mentors, it’s impossible to know where I’d be. A great mentor has the ability to not only know the road you’re traveling on, but also the skillset needed to help you tackle the terrain. The best mentors are teammates: Your success is their success. However, success doesn’t mean just getting the job done. It means getting the job done in a way that forces you to learn, improve, and grow.

Mentors don’t open doors for you. They teach you how to open doors for yourself.

When imposter syndrome creeps in, a mentor is invaluable. When the way forward is daunting, a mentor is invaluable. When the decision needing to be made is a challenging one, a mentor is invaluable. Mentors are often the difference between giving up and going forward.

Oprah says it best:

“A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.”

Not everyone is lucky enough to already have a mentor. Finding a great mentor is a bit like trying to find a romantic partner or a best friend—it requires trial and error, loads of patience, and a keen eye.

Today, I want to share a framework we all can use when searching for new mentors who have the power to change your life.

On the x-axis, we have where the individual focuses attention. Often we think of mentorship within the confines of thriving in an organization. The best mentors, however, transcend the office and make you not just a better professional, but a better person altogether.

On the y-axis, we have the individual’s approach. Mentors aren’t there to remove obstacles that are in your way. That would be a waste. The best mentors choose to collaborate on solutions, providing frameworks and tools to help you come up with answers for yourself.

Understanding the Grid

While finding someone who lands in the top right quadrant would be the ideal combination to seek out in a mentor, each quadrant in this grid valuable.

Mentor

The individual is focused on what’s best for you as a person and does so in a collaborative way. Great mentors will rarely tell you the correct path to pursue. The best ones treat mentoring conversations like Socratic seminars—they ask the perfect follow-up questions to ensure you considering every possible angle before making a decision. Back in November 2019, mentors played a critical role in helping me choose the next best step in my career. There were three paths ahead of me: going to business school, starting a new job at a new company, and starting a new role within LinkedIn. My mentors helped me think through the relevant professional questions, yes, but they also helped me frame the personal ones, too. Often, when making big career decisions, we believe that one choice is “correct” and all other alternatives are wrong. My mentors shifted this thinking. In reality, any of these three choices could be “correct.” It was about committing 100% to whichever option I chose.

Friend

The individual is focused on what’s best for you as a person and does so in a prescriptive way. When you confide in a friend, the initial reaction is for them to be prescriptive. After all, they want to help. If you’re struggling, they want the struggle to end. They fling tips, advice, and guidance your way. Of course, not every friend is like this, but many strive to be helpful through idea generation. Friends are difference makers. Without them, it’s hard to fathom how to get started tackling some of the most confusing challenges and difficult tasks when they’re thrown our way. When it comes to career challenges, friends always see the personal side of the issue. If you’re unhappy with your job, a friend can help brainstorm ways to make it better or find a new one.

Advocate

The individual is focused on what’s best for you as a professional and does so in a collaborative way. Advocates are only found in corporate environments. These are people who admire your work and ability. Because they appreciate your work, they help you thrive. Advocates tend to lobby for promotions and pay raises on your behalf. They help you negotiate big career moves. However, all of this help is provided when thinking about you as a professional, not as a person—meaning they’re optimizing for your career success rather than your personal success. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about you. It means they are more concerned about your professional success than whatever side effects that success could have on your personal life. Regardless, advocates are critically important. There are several jobs I would have never had if it were not for advocates speaking up on my behalf. A great advocate can help you hop to the next level of your career at lightning speed. Be mindful that their help and advice do not consider every aspect of your life.

Resource

The individual is focused on what’s best for you as a professional and does so in a prescriptive way. Resources are sounding boards. You come to them with professional problems and roadblocks. They provide answers. It’s a transactional relationship. That said, it doesn’t mean that these relationships aren’t valuable. When you have resources in your life, they are typically experts who are busy but want to help. So, engaging with them at career inflection points allows them to provide meaningful input with maximum impact. When you engage a resource for professional help, these individuals usually share advice based on their own professional experience. They preach taking the path they chose given they know that path already leads to success (it did for them, after all). However, because this advice is prescriptive, it’s up to you to figure out how it fits into your life. Asking several resources for guidance requires analysis afterward. Once you learn about all of the potential solutions, it’s up to you to negotiate which path to choose. Here, a mentor would be helpful. A mentor would ask additional questions to help you begin whittling down the list until you get to the best option.

Grid Shortcomings

  1. The grid ignores that your mentors can change over time. A mentor you had in high school may not be the mentor you have in college or beyond. As you grow, so do your mentors.

  2. The grid ignores how to actually find a mentor. For me, my mentors are usually previous managers who meet two criteria: I loved their management style and I’m encouraged to stay in touch with them after being on their team. Over time, as we continue to stay in touch, these ex-managers become mentors.

While mentors may have all the answers, they protect the answer as something that the person they are advising (you!) needs to figure out for him or herself. Mentors provide guidance, frameworks, and questions that narrow optionality. With increased focus, you can expect outsized professional and personal returns.

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,
Ross


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