Finding a great mentor can catapult your career – here are the defining attributes of the perfect mentor to look for.
The saying goes that no man is an island, and in a career sense what that really means is: the office can certainly feel like unchartered territory without a mentor. A mentor is something even the most talented people in the world want and need – famously, Larry Summers mentored Sheryl Sandberg, and Maya Angelou mentored Oprah Winfrey. And everyone who has ever had a mentor knows that they can be the shining north star you need to succeed, and can help you navigate everything from difficult decisions to new opportunities. They can even become lifelong friends and sponsors within an organisation, helping oversee your ascension to dizzyingly heights.
Many – if not all – CPOs credit their success to a mentor or two along the way. And this year, with COVID making it one of the most challenging years to date for a lot of us, a mentor is more important than ever to help you navigate the murky waters of leading through and after a pandemic.
But unfortunately, not all mentors are created equal. Some really go above and beyond, yet some are not quite as useful. But how do you know the difference from the outset?
We spoke to two successful senior professionals, Sally Lansbury, Memberships Director at The Faculty Management Consultants and Helen Mackenzie, former CPO and Principal Adviser at Procurious, about how mentors have helped shaped their careers, and what exactly we should all look for in our next mentor:
What should a mentor experience be like?
Sally and Helen both believe that a mentoring experience should be an overwhelmingly positive one, where you get to tap into the wisdom of someone experienced, and use them as a sounding board to navigate challenging situations. Both women said that in their past, they’ve had both formal and informal mentors, and that these mentors have helped their careers in ways they’d never imagined.
Sally found her previous mentors extremely valuable in that she was able to learn about them, as well as use them to help her navigate decisions:
‘For me, I have found a mentoring relationship to be particularly important as I always learn so much from other people’s experiences.’
‘I’ve also found that mentors are great people to bounce ideas off when you’re unsure of something.’
Helen also felt that her mentors were great sounding boards, but found that they were particularly useful in a different way. When Helen was eyeing the top job (of CPO in the organisation she worked for at the time), she felt that her mentor helped her hone her leadership skills:
‘The mentor I had leading up to my promotion to CPO was exceptional. She helped me understand what leadership skills I needed to take that next step.’
Since changing roles from CPO to consulting, Helen has herself had the experience of being a mentor, a role which she describes as challenging but ultimately rewarding. And in a nod to her leadership capability, Helen now typifies what we all aspire to in a mentor:
‘Right now, I’m mentoring a young man in a leadership role who is trying to navigate how to do this in an inclusive way. It’s been challenging for me to think about issues like diversity and of course gender equality from this perspective.’
‘But that’s the beauty of being a mentor. You always aim to put in so much more than you get back in return.’
What qualities should you look for in a mentor?
So how do you tell the difference between an exceptional mentor and one that might not be as valuable? Sally, who has overseen The Faculty’s Roundtable Mentoring Program, which has, to date, seen over 1000 people receive mentoring, has a good idea of the qualities you should look for. These, she says, are:
‘The ideal mentor should have a growth mindset and a learning attitude. They should have a genuine interest in helping you, and be able to commit real time and energy to it.’
‘That also need to have current and relevant industry knowledge in the area that the mentee wants to develop in.’
Helen agrees that these qualities are important, but she says that you need to put more focus on the person, as opposed to the qualities. Specifically, she describes the ideal mentor as someone who isn’t the same as you:
‘Your mentor should be different from you so they can give you another perspective on the world. We spend a lot of time these days on social media in an echo chamber with people who think the same as us.’
‘A mentor should give you the opportunity to challenge your thinking. But you also need to be able to relate to and trust them, otherwise the relationship won’t work.’
How do you know if your mentor isn’t right for you?
If your mentor doesn’t have all of the above qualities, does it mean they’re not right or worse, that they’re not doing a good job? Not at all, says Sally. In fact, in a mentoring relationship, the ball is absolutely in your court when it comes to making the effort to make the arrangement work for you:
‘With mentoring, you only get out what you put in. As a mentee you need to be organised and be clear on your objectives at all times.’
What kind of experience have you had with mentors? What qualities do you look for in a mentor? Let us know in the comments below.