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July 17, 2014 at 1:00 AM

Steps for finding the right mentor

A popular piece of career advice is “get a mentor.” Do you ever think to yourself, “Yeah, but how, exactly?” Well, basically, you just ask. Some thoughts:

First, be clear on why you want a mentor. Are you looking for advice? A sounding board? Or a conduit to your industry’s movers and shakers?

When asking someone to be your mentor, explain why you’re asking and what you’d expect out of the relationship (see above). Don’t be afraid to be flattering (e.g., “I’m asking you because you are the most successful person I know”).

If you ask someone to be your mentor and that person refuses, don’t be offended. It’s not personal! Potential good mentors are busy people. Say thanks for the consideration, and ask for a referral.

Think beyond former bosses and professors. Consider older family members, friends, neighbors, spiritual leaders, community leaders, or officials of professional or trade associations you belong to.

However, avoid asking your direct supervisor at work. You want to be free to discuss workplace issues as well as your plans for future advancement.

Choose a mentor you truly respect; don’t just go for the biggest name you can find.

Before asking for a commitment, consider simply asking for input on a single specific topic. How did that go? Was it good advice?

Beware of mentors who are bossy, controlling or judgmental. This is your path, not theirs.

Look for ways to reciprocate the help your mentor offers. At the very least, you can occasionally spring for lunch.

When a mentor’s advice really works out for you, report back. People love hearing about their role in a success story.

Remember that mentoring can take many forms. It can be a monthly lunch, a quarterly phone call, a weekly handball game or merely a steady email correspondence. Your mentor does not even have to live in your city or region.

Don’t become too dependent on your mentor. In fact, you may not take every bit of advice he or she offers. Continue to think for yourself.

Finally, you’re allowed to have more than one mentor. You can have a whole committee, if you want. Consider choosing different mentors for different facets of your professional (and even personal) life.

Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use. Email her at

More in Work Life Blog | Topics: career advancement, finding your passion, goals

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Blog contributors

Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.

Randy Woods Writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.

Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.

Former contributors

Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant.

Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."

Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.

Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.


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