how to find a mentor at work

You’ve probably read plenty of advice telling you to find a mentor – someone who can advise you on career decisions, help you navigate tricky politics, and generally help you succeed professionally. But how are you supposed to find this magical mentor?

While you might have access to a formal mentoring program, or be courageous enough to simply ask someone to mentor you, it’s often more effective to let it happen naturally. In fact, some of the best mentoring relationships develop on their own without ever being officially labeled. Here’s how you can increase your chances of those relationships popping up naturally:

1. Look for people who you already click with. The strongest mentor relationships are ones that aren’t forced, but rather ones that develop naturally from good chemistry.

2. Ask questions about the other person, such as, “How did you do that?” And, “Why did you decide to handle that altercation in the meeting that way?” Or, “What was behind your decision to revamp this project?” Watch the person in action, and then talk with them about why they made particular choices.

3. Ask questions about yourself, such as “What do you see in my performance or approach that I could do better?” Or, “How can I be perceived as more ___?” And, “If I want to get from ‘x’ to ‘y’ in my career, how do I do that?”

4. Talk to them about dilemmas you’re facing in your job, and explain your thought process on how to handle it. Ask for advice. Run your proposed solution by them and see what they say.

5. Be worth mentoring. This means that you take their advice seriously and genuinely want to excel and advance in your career. A smart mentor will quickly lose interest otherwise.

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. alfie*

    How great, I was just thinking about sending an email asking this very question! (I don’t see “mentors” as an archived topic.) Finding a mentor is a “work resolution” for this year. FWIW Allison, your answer was most relevant for the kind of thing I’m looking for.

    Happy New Year!!

  2. Losing my mind!*

    I swear this was posted yesterday … [not that I mind a repost but I think I may be losing it! :P] o.O

        1. alfie*

          LOL yes, I looked this morning and thought I was crazy too! I thought I must have imagined that I posted the first comment.

  3. hamster*

    I would love do read stories about your own mentoring relationships. And readers’s too. A good topic for the open thread if it’s offtopic here

  4. ThursdaysGeek*

    What about if most of your co-workers (including all management) are at different locations? I have one team co-worker here, and have only met my manager once (although we have a weekly group phone meeting). Are there guidelines for finding a mentor when you haven’t met many of your co-workers and would have to have a long distance mentoring relationship?

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      Because, of course, it’s hard to let relationships build naturally when most communication is via email. It seems like for a long-distance relationship, there needs to be some more deliberate communication to determine roles and people that might be of value in a mentoring relationship, and a more formal request for mentoring, so there is a reason for communication.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You could try something like, “Hey, I’m so impressed by what you’ve done with X and your way with Y. I’d love to set up a call sometime to pick your brain if you’d be open to it.”

  5. Jamie*

    Alison is right in that they don’t have to be formal. Twice in my career different people have referred to me as their mentor and sent thank yous…and I had no idea I’d been mentoring.

    I guarantee the person I consider my mentor has no idea I’d use the word…but that guy taught me so much if he wasn’t a mentor I don’t know what is.

    Personally a formal thing would make me uncomfortable, because I wouldn’t have any idea what the rules are or what would be expected of me. But if you work with me and we have a friendly relationship I’m happy to give advice whenever I can and be generally helpful.

    If you compare it to dating the formal mentoring program is being called on to go to a cotillion…where the way I do it is just hanging out and doing stuff you’d do anyway and then realizing – hey this is more than just watching on demand and eating pizza.

    I’m so much better with tv and pizza than cotillions.

    1. LMW*

      I agree. I have a former boss who was really great at recognizing my strengths and letting me build my role around them. We still have a really friendly relationship, and if I have a specific question about something I’m doing or considering, I feel so much more comfortable talking to her and getting her advice about it, because it’s like talking to a friend, rather than a formal “mentee brings mentor formal goals for development” thing.

  6. ChristineSW*

    Could the advice be applicable in a volunteer setting? I don’t mean the stuffing envelopes variety; I’m referring to more skilled positions (in my case, reviewing grants or serving on committees). I’m in the process of applying for a state-level council, and I see it as a really significant opportunity to help finally get my career back on track (the other groups I’m with goes in spurts in terms of significant work).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Absolutely. And the thing about good mentors is that they like doing it (whether they realize it or not), so it’s not like they’d be put off just because it’s in a volunteer context.

  7. Frieda*

    You say you’re not a fan of formal mentoring programs, but what if you are changing careers? Let’s say I currently work on the shop floor making teapots, but I’m also going to school to be a financial analyst. In my day to day work I don’t have any contact with the business office, but I know there is an analyst on our teapot sales team doing the kind of work I would love to be doing in 3-5 years. Would that be an appropriate time to take advantage of a formal program?

  8. Mena*

    Please select your own mentor and managers, do not assign them!! Early in my career, the President of the company decided that his favorite employee was going to be my mentor. No, I don’t think so. Although this person was very intelligent, I didn’t really respect her on a personal level (and still don’t 20+ years later although we are cordial). She wasn’t who I would have selected as a mentor. And so, I had to carefully ‘manage’ her in her assignment to be my mentor, largely by finding a replacement mentor that the President highly valued and respected. And all of this was done without outwardly talking about it. It was sticky.

    A better approach would have been to ask ME to establish a mentor relationship with someone, which I was already working on anyway.

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