What makes a good mentor? And how do you find one, anyway?

A mentor can push you to achieve great things in your career, but you have to start the relationship off right.

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It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting out in your career, or you’re kicking goals as the CEO of a company—everyone can benefit from the wisdom of a good mentor.

After all, they’ve been where you are. They understand the struggles you’re facing better than anyone. Oprah, Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama are just a few of the world's most successful people who credit their mentors with getting them where they are today.

What is a mentor?

A mentor is someone who can give you advice on your career, based on their own experience. In most cases they’ll be a step or two ahead of you in your industry, and in a role that you’d like to transition into. You’ll catch up regularly to chat about your goals and problem solve your challenges, and they might introduce you to resources or contacts who can help you.

How to find a mentor: the two options

Formal mentorship programs

If you’re not sure where to find a mentor, your best bet is to join a formal career mentoring program through your workplace or a professional association.

In most cases a mentor will be assigned to you, so you won’t have to reach out to someone on your own. You may have to apply or pay to access these types of mentorships, but you’ll be partnered with someone who is highly influential in the industry, which can be a huge benefit to your career.

Formal mentorships also play a big role in business courses, like MBAs. Students enrolled in the University of South Australia’s online MBA, for example, have the chance to partner with executives from companies like the Commonwealth Bank and BP. It’s unlikely these students would have been able to meet these contacts on their own.

And though these mentorships tend to last for a set period, if you hit it off with your mentor, you could make a contact for life.

Informal mentorships

If you’re after a more casual, ongoing arrangement, you could approach someone directly and ask them to be your mentor.

Ideally, they’ll be an impartial third party rather than someone who has a say over your career, so consider a friend, family member or professional contact with significant experience in your field.

Not sure what to say? The Muse has some fantastic advice on crafting the perfect mentor request email.

The qualities of a good mentor

It’s worth remembering that mentoring is a very specific skill, and even the most accomplished pros can struggle with it. If possible, schedule an intro meeting with your mentor before agreeing to anything so you can make sure you’re a good match. You’ll get much more out of your relationship if they show these traits:

Extensive knowledge in their field—and a thirst for learning more

It goes without saying that you’ll want a mentor with a deep knowledge of your industry. But they should also be passionate about learning and developing in their own career. If they can rattle off books, podcasts and experts that they love and refer to on a regular basis, then that’s a sign they’re going to be a helpful resource to you.

The best mentors value the power of learning so much they will even have a mentor of their own, so don’t be afraid to ask them who teaches them in their career.

An inspiring communication style

You’re confident your potential mentor knows their stuff—but do they inspire you when they talk about it?

You’ll want to leave your sessions energised and motivated to tackle your goals, so pay attention to how they communicate. People who are optimistic, empathetic, expressive and emotionally self-aware tend to be the most inspiring. If they show signs of those qualities, then you’re onto a good deal.

A reliable and trustworthy nature

You want a mentor who will schedule regular catch ups and stick to them. Look out for red flags, like last-minute meeting moves or cancellations. While it's completely understandable that your mentor will be busy, you don't want to have to compete for their attention. If they show a lack of respect for your time, then you might not be the best fit.

An ability to share constructive feedback

Great mentors aren’t just great listeners, they’re also not afraid to give you their honest opinion. During your first meeting, tell them about a problem you’re having at work and see how they respond. If they give you a new perspective on the situation, then you’ve got yourself a keeper. But if all you’re getting is a lot of “hmms” and “I sees”, then it might be time to look for more concrete advice elsewhere.

Making your mentorship worthwhile

How often should you meet?

You and your mentor will find your own rhythm, but it’s worth meeting for at least an hour every month. This will give you enough time to test their advice and formulate new questions.

Before you start, you’ll also want to establish some boundaries around how you’ll communicate between catch ups. Are they happy to get unscheduled calls, or should you stick to email only? Do they even have time to answer your questions between meetings? You’ll have a much better relationship if you get this all out in the open early on.

What should you do during each meeting?

We all know how aimless meetings can be without a clear direction, so consider following this format to get the most out of your time together:

In your first meeting

  • Discuss the short and long-term goals you’d like to accomplish through your mentorship.
  • Agree on some tasks you can complete to achieve your short-term goals before your next meeting.

In all subsequent meetings

  • Chat about how you went on those tasks, including what challenges came up and where you think you went well.
  • Get feedback from your mentor on how you approached each situation and how you could tackle things differently next time.
  • Set some new tasks to complete before your next meeting.
  • Ask any other questions you may have about your career as a whole.

What questions should you ask a mentor about your career development?

  • How would you handle this situation if you were in my place? Have you dealt with this problem before?

  • Where do you see the industry going in the future?
  • Where do you think I should upskill to stay relevant?
  • What skills do you wish you’d focused on when you started in the industry?
  • Are there any training courses you think I should take?
  • Are there any industry associations it would be a valuable for me to join?
  • I would love to become a better leader. How have you developed your leadership skills?
  • Where do you find inspiration? Can you recommend any resources?
  • Do you have any tips that will help me balance my work and home life?

Once you’ve settled into a routine with your mentor, these conversations will flow naturally—but this is a great place to start.

If you’re interested in exploring a formal mentorship opportunity through an online course, we can help. Explore thousands of courses from leading universities right here, right now.

Keen to chat things through? Our expert student advisors can help you find courses and universities that offer mentorships. Get in touch on Messenger, WhatsApp, SMS, live chat or phone.