I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about mentorship lately, mostly because I’ve been participating in “formal” mentorship programs (as both a mentee and a mentor) for the first time this year.

Prior to my recent experience, I had an irrational aversion to the concept of mentorship. My mental model of mentorship was a bit of a caricature, in a Mr-Miyagi-meets-Yoda sort of way, so it’s no surprise that I was either put off by the concept or maybe skeptical that such a figure would take a personal interest in me. I’ve been very fortunate to have a variety of de facto mentors that helped me get where I am despite that aversion: family members, friends, employers, business relationships, and a host of incredible strangers who’ve made time for me when I asked. (Side note: many, possibly most, of the “famous” people that you would love to ask a question to would also love to answer it. Email addresses are easy to find. Learn the habit of sending cold email to people who you admire!) I used to think that was the same thing as mentorship, or as close to it as I needed, but I was wrong.

What is a mentor?

A mentor is someone who has experience achieving goals relevant to your own, and who is committed to helping you make progress toward yours by providing perspective and guidance. A mentor might also embody the role of a coach or a sponsor, but those are different things:

  • A coach is someone who works closely with you to develop specific skills.
  • A sponsor is someone who uses their influence to improve your position with regard to your goals.

When and why do people need mentors?

I think probably most of the time; that is, I think people can benefit from mentors whenever they have goals that they want to achieve, which is hopefully most of the time. As alluded to above, I’ve had the privilege of participating in the sort of social and organizational structures that came with a lot of mentorship built in: parents, older siblings, friends who happen to be more skilled or more experienced at something, teachers, managers, etc. Of course, not everyone is fortunate enough to have that form of mentor early in their life or career, but many are, and when that happens it is usually pretty informal.

Recently I’ve come to learn that, much like most things in life, you can get more out of mentorship by being proactive about it. In my case, I’ve reached a point in my career where the people in my informal network don’t have enough relevant experience to help me accomplish the things I want to accomplish, and that has forced me to proactively seek guidance from people who do have the relevant experience.

Who makes a good mentor?

Anyone with experience which is relevant to your goals and more advanced than your own, and who has the right disposition. The latter point is obviously subjective, but basically you’re looking for someone who wants to help, is able to be candid, and listens when you talk.

A mistake that people make when looking for a mentor is trying to find the most senior or experienced person they can find. You will get better results from someone who is only a few steps further along the path you want to take, because their experience will be more similar to your own (since less time has passed) and they will probably have more time for you.

Other mistakes include:

  • Looking for a huge time commitment from a mentor, especially early on. Let the relationship grow organically. You both should have better things to do than chat all the time, anyway.
  • Expecting a mentorship relationship to last years or more. Sometimes this happens, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time mentees will learn from a mentor for 6 months to a year and then move on. This makes sense when you consider that a mentee’s goals are unlikely to stay in line with a mentor’s experience indefinitely.
  • Expecting the mentor to drive the relationship. Mentors should show up when asked, listen a lot, ask some questions, and occasionally provide input based on their experience. Mentees do everything else; they are responsible for using the time productively.

A tip for being a good mentee is to set an agenda with one or two main discussion topics for each meeting with their mentor, and then to identify action items at the end. They should commit to those action items and provide an update to the mentor at the beginning of their next meeting. This approach helps both sides see that progress is being made and that the time investment has been well spent.

How can I find a mentor?

This is the hard part! I’ve used Plato successfully and think it’s worth a try if you’re a software engineer or manager thereof, especially if you can get your employer to pay for it. If that’s not an option, then I think you need to start sending some DMs on Twitter (or equivalent). My inbox is always open, by the way–I’d be happy to brainstorm with you about this.