What to Look for in a Mentor

by Tom Ewer 6 Minutes

MentorIs your career precisely on track or have you hit a snag?

At some point, you’re going to get stuck, and blogs and books just aren’t going to cut it anymore. You’re a professional and you know the importance of updating your skills; however, you’ll eventually reach the point where you can no longer do it on your own. And that’s normal.

If your business isn’t all it could be and you’re at a loss on how to improve it, then it sounds like it’s time for you to get yourself a mentor. Someone whose brain you can pick, whose expertise stretches far beyond your own.

But with so many so-called gurus setting up shop and taking on “mentees,” it can be hard to find to the right person to guide you on your business journey. Not to say that every “coach” out there is a charlatan — they’re not — but they might not be the right person for you.

If you decide to invest in a mentor, keep the following in mind:

Make Sure They Practice What They Preach

You wouldn’t ask your barber to mentor you in the art of rock climbing. You wouldn’t recruit a neuroscientist to help you fill out a graphic design proposal worksheet. Nor would you hire your dog to teach you how to speak to cats (I have it on good authority that they’re terrible at it).

Make sure your mentor knows what they’re doing. And, more importantly, that they’re still active in that field.

You want a mentor whose techniques are current. After all, you’re trying to update your skills — bringing them forward — so why wouldn’t you expect the same of the person teaching you? Mainly because what worked in the past might not work today.

Active practitioners of a craft get ongoing feedback that teachers don’t. The business world (especially online!) moves quickly. Even if someone was once at the top of their game, it would be all-too-easy for their once sharp skill set to grow dull after a short period of inactivity.

If you’re looking for someone to mentor you in web design, make sure they know how to work with today’s technology. (Can you imagine forking over the money for tutelage and being taught basic HTML on a DOS-run computer?). Likewise, if you’re looking for a freelance writing mentor, they should be aware of the shift to online publications and know how to connect with an online audience.

What Equipment You’ll Need to Connect with Them

Will you be talking to your mentor over the phone? In person? Online?

If your mentor is only available online, make sure you have the right equipment to speak with them. Will they be creating a private Google Hangout? If so, you’ll need a Google+ account. Or, will they be speaking with you over Skype? In which case, you may need to invest in a headset (and maybe even a fresh haircut, if you decide to video chat).

Always make sure that you have the capability to connect with the mentor you choose. If you’re someone who lives in San Francisco, you probably don’t want to choose a mentor who lives in Milan who only meets with mentees in person at a corner-side cafe. That would get ridiculously expensive extremely quickly. Likewise, you wouldn’t want to sign up to speak to a mentor online if your only Internet connection is via your 2005 cell phone with a cracked screen.

What You’ll Get Out of the Relationship

What promises is your potential mentor making? Are they simply offering themselves up as someone to bounce ideas off of? Or are they offering a more concrete guarantee — like showing you a foolproof technique to create a passive income stream?

More importantly: what do you want to get out of a mentor/mentee relationship? Check in with your overall business goals and ask yourself how a mentor would help you achieve those goals more efficiently.

Don’t go for the biggest name or the biggest promises just because everyone else is. Make sure you choose a mentor that’s right for you, and what you hope to accomplish with your business.

That They Know More Than You (And That It’s Relevant Knowledge)

Typically mentors will be older than you, but not necessarily. In fact, they may not even have been in business as long as you have. For instance, you may have started freelancing in 2010, but not have as much experience or “know how” as someone whose been successfully freelancing since 2012. “Experience” doesn’t always equate to age or time — in the business world, it’s measured by successes.

However, you’ll want to make sure that your potential mentor has had relevant successes. Have they been achieving the same goals that you would someday like to achieve for yourself? A master painter would make a fine mentor for someone looking to succeed in the arts, but their knowledge wouldn’t be useful to someone attempting to learn bass guitar.

The more specific the skill you wish to improve, the pickier you’ll have to be when choosing who teaches it to you. However, if you’re looking for broader, more general knowledge, you have a bit more wiggle room.

That They’re Available

What does your potential mentor’s schedule look like? Does it line up with your own?

As a general rule, you want a mentor who will be there for you on an on-going basis. Whether you decide to meet up once a day or once per month is up to you and your personal needs, but having someone hold you accountable on a steady basis is the name of the game. Make sure you choose someone who’s available to help you when you need them to.

That They Want to Mentor You

We’ve all had that one school teacher who clearly did not want to be there. But, now that we’re adults, we have more freedom of choice when it comes to who we learn from. Find a mentor who wants to be there for you. Someone who cares about your success as much as you do.

Ideally your mentor should believe in you, your business, and your capacity for improvement. If your potential mentor doesn’t believe that you’re capable of improving, they won’t put as much effort into the relationship. And, in the end, you’ll both be wasting your time.

Most professionals who’ve been bit by the mentoring bug will state that their services are available — especially if you’re looking for someone online. However, if you’re thinking to approach someone in the real world, don’t be taken aback if they turn you down. Mentoring isn’t for everyone. All a rejection means is that you’ll have to continue your search elsewhere. Speaking of which…

Where to Find a Great Mentor

You may already know your mentor. Former bosses and colleagues can make great mentors. As can family and friends, if they work in your field.

There are also several professional organizations dedicated to helping business owners find mentors:

No matter where you choose find your mentor, here are six additional things to keep in mind to make the most of the experience:

  1. Find a mentor who’s honest with you. You’re looking for someone to help advance your career, not be your personal magic mirror. Find someone who will offer you honest, constructive criticism.
  2. Remember your mentor’s role in your life. Your mentor isn’t your babysitter or your therapist. They’re there to help you increase your skill levels and advance your career, not take care of you physically or emotionally. If, by some chance, they do help you in that regard, think of it as a sweet side-effect — but never try to force that type of relationship. It’s unprofessional.
  3. Keep personality traits in mind. If at all possible, speak with your mentor before signing them on. Get to know them a bit as a person. Do you like them? You’re going to be spending a lot of time with this person. Make sure they’re someone you can stand.
  4. Don’t be afraid to take a “risk.” Your mentor will likely present ideas and techniques that are vastly different than your own. And that’s okay! That’s actually what you’re hiring them for — to get another point of view. Sometimes that’s all you really need to get your career unstuck. So long as what they propose isn’t illegal or obviously wrong for your business, give it a try!
  5. Don’t get hung up on testimonials. It’s often hard for mentors to gain testimonials because many professionals don’t like to admit that they needed help. Or, in other cases, your mentor could be new to mentoring (in the case of asking someone you know, you could be their very first mentee!). If your potential mentor doesn’t have a ton of “social proof” for their services, consider cutting them some slack. It doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re talking about. Instead, look for testimonials from their business clients who reference what your mentor will be teaching you. For example: if you’re hiring a copywriter to teach you how to write better sales pages, check the copywriter’s testimonials page for clients raving about how that copywriter’s sales pages have revolutionized their business.
  6. Try more than one mentor. You aren’t being disloyal when you hire more than one mentor, you’re being smart. Luke Skywalker learned the way of the Force from Obi-Wan and Yoda. When you hire more than one mentor, you double your chances of broadening your skills — and you get a better grasp of what works best for you.

In the end, what you get out of a mentor/mentee relationship is up to you. Just remember to respect your mentor as a fellow professional. They might be working “for” you, but, in reality, they’re performing a much more important task: helping you work better for yourself.

Image by strev

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by Tom Ewer
Tom Ewer and the WordCandy team have clocked some serious mileage as freelancers, agency employees and even agency owners over the years, and they love sharing their combined expertise here on the Bidsketch blog.