By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

Two men sitting on a hill talking on Wake Forest campus

Photo by WFU Photography

At some point over the past few years you probably have heard or thought to yourself that you need to find a mentor. Mentorship, that trusted wise counselor and advisor who can help you on your career and life path, point out opportunities, and push you to deeper meaning and points of connection, has become a bit of a fad. Everyone seems to know that mentoring matters and is key to personal and professional success. Unfortunately, few stop to think about the best way to enter into these relationships to take advantage of the time and energy expended, not to mention the access provided to social and organizational capital.

Traditionally, we think of mentoring as a relationship between an older, wiser, more experienced mentor, and a younger, novice mentee who knows little to nothing about life and work. It is easy to get seduced into thinking that there is one perfect mentor out there for you, but expecting that out of another person is just setting them up for failure and setting yourself up for disappointment. You might look for a position or title, thinking that someone who is quite senior in an organization will be a great mentor for you. Perhaps, but these people also don’t have a lot of free time to give, and aren’t likely to show up for you. Not to mention, there is no direct correlation between one’s title and one’s ability to mentor. Just because someone has achieved a role as “manager” or “director” or “vice president” doesn’t mean that they’re great at mentoring and coaching people. One has absolutely nothing to do with the other.

So how do you find the mentor that you need, the one who is truly going to show up for you, support you, and give you that honest and objective feedback you need to hear, while also possibly opening doors and giving you access to opportunities?

First, let’s clarify what we mean by mentoring. We define it as a purposeful and personal relationship, in which a more experienced person (mentor) provides guidance, feedback, and wisdom to facilitate the growth and development of a less experienced person (mentee). It is an intentional relationship between two people (usually), a less experienced person and a more experienced person. We used to think about mentoring as finding that one, be-all, end-all person to serve as a mentor up on a pedestal. Not anymore. Now, you want to find the person who has experience in the area in which you are seeking mentorship, which means that you, the mentee, has to get clear on what you are seeking. And, your “perfect” mentor could be younger than you, or have a lesser title than you.

Great mentors provide guidance, feedback, and wisdom based on their personal experience. They are a facilitator of the mentee’s growth and development. This means that the mentor is not there to do the work for the mentee. Indeed, if the mentor is doing more work than the mentee, then something is out of balance in that relationship. The mentor is there to facilitate that work, to ask great questions, give great feedback, and occasionally give a little push when needed.

The key to these relationships is that they start and end with you, the mentee. You do the work. Before you ever seek someone out to support you, you have to do the work of setting some goals and committing to seeing them through. And then, you have to do the work of assessing your network and building intentional relationships with people who can support you. Start with these questions:

  • Where do I want to be in six months to one year? What steps do I need to take to get there? Set no more than 3 developmental goals for yourself, that you are committed to seeing through.
  • Where are my gaps, in terms of knowledge or access or skills? As part of that goal-setting process, you will discover some gaps. If not, then your goals aren’t big enough. Get honest with yourself about what you are missing.
  • Who could help me to fill those gaps? Start with the people you already know. Are there people in your network who have experience in the areas you are seeking to grow and develop?
  • What can I do to reach out to those people and strengthen our relationship? Remember, mentoring is all about the intentional relationship. Reach out to people, be genuinely curious about them, ask for their guidance and feedback on your goals and next steps, and then periodically check in to let them know your progress.

Often someone will say something to me along the lines of, “I’ve never had a mentor,” or, “Why won’t anyone mentor me?” From my experience, people who do the work get the mentorship they deserve. So before you go down that road, ask yourself a few more questions:

  • Am I paying attention? There are people around you, right now, who are actively trying to advise and guide you on your path. You simply aren’t paying attention. So instead of asking the question, “Why won’t anyone mentor me?” try asking the question, “Who is already mentoring me and how can I take more advantage of that relationship?”
  • Am I building intentional relationships? Don’t sit back waiting for someone to come tap you on the shoulder and pull you along with them. Be an active participant in your own growth and development. If you care about your future, then work on building intentional relationships with other people before you ask them to support your goals.
  • Am I broadening my choices? Don’t limit potential mentors and connections to the people who are immediately around you. Diversify your network and the perspectives you are hearing. Seek out people in professional organizations, civic organizations, social and alumni associations, and elsewhere.

And if you still can’t find anyone, well, don’t let that stop you from pursuing your goals. Your goals should be things that you’re going to work on, whether or not someone walks beside you on that path. The person who should be most invested in your growth and development is you. So don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself because you can’t find the mentorship you want. Get to work owning your future and find the mentorship you need.