Mentorship

Before You Choose a Mentor, Make Sure They Meet These 10 Criteria

mentoring relationship

Mentors increase job satisfaction, performance, and earnings by providing contacts, guidance, and accountability in a way few other relationships can. Research by Olivet Nazarene University found 76% of people surveyed think mentors are essential.

But the same study found only 37% of people had a mentor themselves. If you’re among them, you owe it to yourself to start looking for a mentor to help you succeed in your career.

The trick is to find a great mentor: someone with the perfect match of personality, skill set, and career arc to push and pull you at the same time.

10 Traits of Effective Mentors

The ideal mentor for one person will be different from the perfect mentor for somebody else, but they all share 10 traits that make them more likely to help you succeed

1. Accomplished in their field.

Any mentoring candidate should be accomplished and successful, but we live in an age of specialization and your mentor should have something that distinguishes them. Find someone with a niche that you’re interested in and who can offer you unique insights into their accomplishments there.

Look for potential mentors among the people “you want to be like when you grow up.” If they’ve built a career that looks a lot like how you want yours to go, it’s reasonable to assume they have what it takes to help you do the same.

2. Boundless enthusiasm

Many industries have successful participants who are enthusiastic about money and acclaim, but the very best also fell in love with the subject matter. They’re nerds about it, passionate followers of the trends and thought leaders. That sort of person will be enthusiastic enough about the field to bring a new person along.

Look for that enthusiasm in your potential mentors. The good news is it’s hard to hide. Enthusiastic people tend to stay visible.

3. Gives quality feedback

One of a mentor’s core jobs is to tell you how to do things differently than you’re doing now. If you were already perfect in your approach and execution, you wouldn’t need a mentor. You want somebody who will take you to task when you need it and point out errors you can work to improve, while still building you up and encouraging you to keep moving forward.

Mentoring One of the best ways to find this is to observe how potential mentors receive compliments and self-report their accomplishments. The way they treat themselves will give you good insights into how they’re likely to treat you.

4. Goal-oriented

If you’re looking for a mentor, you already have a goal-oriented personality. You know about SMART goals, how to motivate yourself, and the basics of personal accountability. If somebody isn’t similarly goal-oriented, they won’t be able to help you create a framework for your long-term success.

They should also approach goal-setting the same way as you. Sometimes it’s good to have a mentor with a different approach, but when it comes to goal setting that can create more conflict than harmony. For example, some people prefer to set unrealistic goals because the high numbers drive them to excel. Others require a series of aggressive but attainable goals they can meet every quarter. Neither approach is wrong, but a mentor with one view and a mentee with the other will clash more than they gel.

Ask potential mentors about their goals and how they achieved them. If you can’t talk with them in person, check their social media. Many of the most successful individuals make public statements of their goals to help themselves stay accountable.

5. Lifelong learner

Although your mentor should be farther along on their career path than you, they should never consider themselves finished with growing and learning. Even if they’re retired, they should have ongoing projects and interests, hobbies, and pursuits. They read, listen to audiobooks, or take classes consistently throughout their lives.

People who remain interested in learning are people who also teach well. Beyond that, they’ll approach their relationship with you as another opportunity to learn and grow, which will make them more invested than somebody who views it solely as a way to pass on what they’ve already mastered.

Lifelong learners are easy to spot. They’re always asking questions, mentioning books they’ve just read, and taking a keen interest in new things.

6. Invested in you

Just as your mentor must be enthusiastic about their field, they must also be passionate about you. Mentors who take on their roles grudgingly will never prioritize their relationship with you. Instead, they’ll go through the motions and both of your time could be better spent.

You don’t need a cheerleader, but you do need a coach. Any athlete knows the best coaches are their athletes’ biggest fans and passionately want what’s best for them, even if it means putting them through some short-term pain. You want that kind of person helping you grow.

Most mentoring relationships evolve naturally out of an existing friendship or professional situation, meaning you’re most likely to find the best mentor by first identifying people who are already passionate about you and your success.

7. Positive attitude

This one isn’t just an attribute of a good mentor. It’s an attribute for almost all successful people. A negative attitude makes it hard to see opportunities, let alone take them with the speed and passion needed to stand out. Worse, it infects those nearby.

It’s harder to avoid than you may think. Many highly successful people become cynical as they peak in their careers and become grizzled veterans. This doesn’t make them bad people or mean their previous successes meant nothing. It just means they’d be suboptimal mentors.

8. Shared values

The best mentor for you will want similar things from their career and life as you do. Sharing these values means their advice will be congruent with both your goals and your moral compass.

A good mentorImagine a mentor focused on making money and a mentee who wants to make a social difference. They would spend more time disagreeing about the direction of their efforts than they would mapping out a plan for success. Even worse would be a situation where a mentor continually recommends choices the mentee finds unethical.

This may be the most complex trait to determine casually, so you may need to invest some time in the relationship to uncover them. Learn these with a few heart-to-heart talks as you’re deciding if an individual will make a good mentor for you.

9. Widely respected

You want a mentor who is widely respected for two reasons. First, it’s a better indicator of true mastery than a title, position, or salary. It tells you a person is in the right place, doing the right things for the right reasons.

Second, knowledge isn’t the only thing mentors share. They share opportunities, contacts, and connections. A widely respected person has a broader group of people willing to do them favors, which means more people ready to help you along the way.

Much like lifelong learners, a respected person is easy to spot. Just listen to how other people talk about them. Check out their social media feeds and see not how many people follow them but how they talk with them. Does the tone show respect and appreciation?

10. Willingness to share

A great mentor is excited to teach what they know and share their skills, knowledge, expertise, perspective, and network.

Most great mentors take the role because they can’t help but share and teach. They see it as part of the life cycle of an expert, a necessary and enjoyable part of their success journey. They want to share with you because it helps them grow.

People who are willing to share identify themselves early and often because they’re sharing things right now. Listen to them talk, check their social feeds, and listen to the podcast they’ve inevitably started. It will tell you what you need to know about their generosity.

Final Thought: The Identity Question

That same study by Olivet Nazarene found most people (69% of women and 82% of men) opted for same-sex mentors. For women and minorities especially, choosing a mentor who can relate to unique challenges can be a game-changer in helping you overcome them. You don’t need to choose a mentor who is “like” you, but consider whether the mentor you choose will appreciate the complexities of your identity at work. If they simply don’t get it, this can cause friction down the road and end up frustrating you more than lifting you up.

About the Author

Robert King was in financial services for more than a decade. He had mentors for the first five years and then became a mentor himself. He's currently writing a book about his experiences and hopes it inspires others to become a mentor in their professions.