Oprah and Bill Gates have mentors. Do you?

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There’s a simple secret to the success of some of history’s most accomplished people. They’ve had incredible mentors.

Bill Gates has one in Warren Buffet. Oprah Winfrey has one in Maya Angelou.  Yves Saint Laurent had one in Christian Dior. Aristotle had one in Plato, who had one in Socrates — and the list goes on.

Yet mentorship, while consistently cited by leaders as one of the most beneficial “get ahead” tools for the working world, also seems to be one of the most under-utilized, both by individuals and the companies they work for. According to a recent survey by consulting firm Accenture, fewer than one-third of those polled (32 percent of women and 31 percent of men) reported having a formal or informal mentor, and only one-in-five respondents said that their company had a formal mentoring program in place.

Additionally, when asked what tactics they’d previously used to move their careers forward, only 19 percent of workers said they’d used mentoring as an advancement strategy. In comparison, 59 percent had sought additional training or education, 55 percent had taken on additional responsibility at work, 37 percent had asked for a raise or promotion, and 30 percent had used networking to get ahead.

The relatively small number of workers with mentors is especially surprising considering the list of benefits to be gained from these relationships. According to the survey results, the following were the most common perks cited by those in a mentorship:

  • Mentor provided guidance and advice — 81 percent
  • Mentor helped plan career moves — 45 percent
  • Mentor acted as a sounding board — 43 percent
  • Mentor publicly supported/endorsed mentee for a promotion — 32 percent

Think you could use a business mentor, but not sure how to find one? Here are a few things to keep in mind as you set out on your search:

1. “Mentors” and “role models” are different:  It’s great to have people that you can look up to in your career, but these role models are different than formal mentors. “Professionally, there is room for formal mentoring relationships and role models,” says Dave Sanford, an executive vice president at staffing firm Winter, Wyman. “[But] I think mentoring is more of an active process — there is open communication, you can share personal information and not feel judged or fearful of jeopardizing your career. With a role model, it’s more that a person is leading by example. They demonstrate ways to do things and ways to behave. A role model might not even know they are being viewed as such; it’s more of passive process.”

2. Don’t choose your boss: Your boss can serve as an excellent role model in your career, but be wary of entering into a “formal” mentoring relationship with your direct supervisor. “It may feel like your boss is too close professionally to serve as a supportive mentor,” Sanford says. “For example, if your boss had to press you for performance improvement; sometimes it can get muddy and that may create reluctance. While a mentor needs to understand who you are and what you do professionally, chances are, they are a few steps removed from your day-to-day work, enabling their feedback and advice to be clean and unbiased. Mentors can come at things from a unique and very helpful vantage point.”

Additionally, you should be able to be candid with your mentor about your desired career path and your goals. Doing so with your boss could create a direct conflict of interest when you’re ready to move on from your current position.

3.  Look for someone in your field: A great mentor will be able to provide you with advice and guidance when it comes to your career. A really great mentor will also be able to introduce you to other valuable connections in your industry. Choosing someone who is not just a great leader, but a great leader in your industry will provide these extra networking benefits. 

4. Test the waters: Have someone in mind but not sure if they’re interested in being a mentor? Test the waters by telling the person that you value his or her opinion, and ask if they’d mind giving you advice about a career predicament you’re having. If the person is eager to help, he or she will likely be open to the idea of becoming a mentor.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask: “With the demands of the workplace, you will likely need to ask someone to serve as a mentor as they may not have the time or inclination to suggest it themselves,” Sanford says.

While the fear of rejection might make you nervous, chances are, your risk will be worth it.  “Professionals are usually very open to mentoring — it’s a great compliment as it shows that you respect the person and value his or her opinion and way of doing things. More than likely, they will accept and feel pleased to have been asked,” he says.

If they do happen to decline, don’t take it personally. “The reasons are most likely due to not having the time to properly devote to the mentoring role,” Sanford says. Keep searching until you find someone who does.

  1. I am a graduate from CTI education group with an HND (Higher National Diploma) in information and Technology and i reali need a mentor for job placements

  2. This would be a really great Idea for me, I have been applying for Intern jobs in graphic design so I can get some time under my belt but as of yet no luck. I would love to find a mentor to help me work towards making my projects amazing instead of great. Knowledge is power for sure and the more I know the better off I will be

  3. If one is not able to find a mentor personally. They can read the blogs of people whom they would consider to be their mentors, follow them on twitter, facebook or linkedin.

    One can still gain some insights from prospective mentors this way, if not one-on-one.

  4. Just a comment to Kaitlin Madden. The piece I saw in today’s Desert Sun newspaper on “5 key questions” is the best advice for the job seeker I have ever read! Congratulations on a fine, and helpful piece. Although now retired, I ran my own company for 47 years before retirement; I often asked these, or similar questions. I clipped the article to send to my son; I suspect the emphasis on the “end user” response will be helpful to him in seeking scholarships, as well as eventual job interviews.

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  6. Excellent article! It’s an honor to have someone approach you and ask you to be his/her mentor. I would cautiously disagree with the statement about not asking your boss to be your mentor. Perhaps I’m unique but I have always been able to separate day to day from mentoring by establishing trust. I have even encouraged mentees to seek employment elsewhere as their begin to spread their wings and build their career goals.

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  8. Is it okay to use someone younger than yourself? I am 60, it would be nice to have help figuring out what to do next. I need to find passion for something.

    • I would say it’s perfectly fine to ask someone to be a mentor, regardless of his/her age. I was just reflecting today on how flattered I was to be asked advice once from an older, esteemed colleague.

      One objective of mentoring is to find somebody who was successful doing what you want to do. Success or failure usually have nothing to do with age, but with maturity, experience, attitude…well, you get the idea. The idea is to learn how they handled challenges they had to overcome to get where they are. A map from somebody who has “been there” is pretty valuable stuff.

      This article had good points outlining some characteristics and benefits of a mentor, but like most others, doesn’t suggest where to find one. For someone socially shy (but technically proficient), just where can one find these elusive mentors?

  9. I graduated from long island university school of pharmacy @ Brooklyn, NY. May 2009. I received a doctorate degree in pharmacy. I am still looking for job. I need a strong mentor to guide me through.

  10. after working 21 yrs siemens move their mfg dept to china..and we 200 people on road now..i up grade my self with networking net+ ccna, now everyday applying for job but I dont get any responce….what I do..? because i dont have any exp …even no entry level job …

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  12. Kaitlin,

    This is a great article. Finding the right mentor is crucial to a person’s success. I like that you mentioned not to pick your boss. The most beneficial mentor will most likely be one from a different field or industry. Approach this as a learning opportunity and be ready to give back more than you receive. Some people call it “reverse mentorship” – in other words, you’re providing the mentoring opportunity to the veteran employee.

    Great advice! Here’s an article I wrote that I think you’ll find relevant. I’d appreciate your feedback!

    The Importance of Finding a Mentor: http://bit.ly/findingamentor

    Keep up the great work.

    Kirk Baumann

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