Finding a Mentor

How to Find a Mentor

Think back on the most significant help you have received in making you effective at work.  Did it come from a class?  Was it the result of a training seminar?  Was it an event?  Most likely you will respond like a large number of others.  The most significant shaping event that occurs in most of our lives is typically an encounter with another more experienced person who took the time to invest in our performance with an insight, word of encouragement or demonstration of a trick of the trade.  That person influenced your life informally – they were training “on the fly” or mentoring you. 

Mentoring occurs in most every organization. It is the “unofficial” training that occurs as employees provide each other with their perception of what makes the company tick, what its felt-values are; it’s consistent or inconsistent behavior and the “rules” of survival.  Such mentoring may be a powerful source for building employee engagement and identifying leaders or it may serve as the backdoor in a talent exodus. 

The point is that actively seeking out and engaging mentoring relationships provides a powerful platform for expanding one’s skills sets, deepening awareness of political interactions and enlarging awareness of market forces that impact daily decision making.  I am talking about finding a mentor. 

First: Define Mentoring

Mentoring is a powerful dynamic that is not always leveraged by emerging leaders.  In my coaching practice I often find young leaders too busy trying to prove themselves to listen to experienced leaders around them.  However, metaphorical hearing impairment is not the sole venue of inexperienced leaders.  Even experienced leaders fail to listen to younger leaders in areas they may find a little mentoring helpful e.g., using new technology.

The simple fact is that the most important learning tool any leader possesses is the ability to find and collect mentors who provide a variety of key inputs during times of decision, crises, and personal or professional transition periods and in the daily grind where experienced has found appropriate short-cuts to higher efficiency in task management.  I have found that mentors are particularly helpful in:

·         Investing the knowledge of key individuals into my workflow and decision-making processes. Such an investment of knowledge enhances or amplifies the practices that make me a more effective leader. 

·         Provides depth in my decision-making processes thus ensuring greater consistency to my company’s business objectives and values that contributes to the results that build rather than diminish momentum. 

·         Transmits the “how to” knowledge of the experience when I face situations that are new to me.  Since one of the most often cited reasons for high turnover rates in many industries is the lack of “how to do it” skills. Any relationship that accentuates practical knowledge possesses an immediate impact potential on both performance levels and feelings of employee engagement and satisfaction.

In today’s competitive business environment two things are critical to short and long term success.  First, because being a learning organization is a significant point of leverage in gaining a competitive advantage giving attention to the development of mentoring relationships with emerging leaders in your company is a way to accelerate execution of tactical and strategic goals.  Second, finding mentors is a way to position oneself for better advancement opportunities and expanding responsibility by both benefiting from others’ knowledge and the relationships that that serve as points of sponsorship. So what is a mentor?

A mentor is not a person who can do the work better than his followers; he is a person who can get his follower to do the work better than he can. (Fred Smith)

A mentor is an individual who influences others in possessing the ability to see potential in another person, tolerate mistakes, brashness, abrasiveness and the like to see that potential develop. (J. Robert Clinton)


Second: Understand Mentoring is not Monolithic

Mentoring itself is an expression of various developmental functions it is not a monolithic developmental exercise.  Mentoring is a holistic approach that recognizes workplace performance and behavior do not occur in a vacuum.  College students surveyed in July of 2001 ranked balancing work and personal life as the most significant value to career decisions. (Nan Hallock, “Customer Service Industry Incentives, Bonuses and Employee Retention.” A White Paper. Chicago, IL: International Customer Service Association, 2001.  Available at;

Mentoring includes development that focuses on personal life and development that focuses on career skills. Realize that career development cannot be separated from personal life.  Kathy Kram’s research of mentoring relationships at work revealed that;

Among the studies completed, a set of functions converges.  These functions can be summarized in two broad categories.  Career functions are those aspects of the relationship that enhance learning the ropes and preparing for advancement in the organization.  Psychosocial functions are those aspects of a relationship that enhance a sense of competence, clarity in identity, and effectiveness in a professional role. (Kathy Kram.  Mentoring at Work.  New York, NY: University Press of America, 1988, 22.)

Table 1 illustrates the primary functions of a variety of mentoring activities.  As you survey this list what functions could you see yourself operating in as you relate to the people who work around you?

Table 1: Mentor Functions Defined

Ministry (Career) Functions

Personal Development (Psychosocial) Functions

1.      Coaching – skills, insight to informal and political processes.

1.      Discipline – habits.

2.      Trainer – knowledge

2.      Role modeling – values

3.      Sponsorship – opportunity for advancement

3.      Acceptance and confirmation – self-differentiation in a relationship in which conflict is safe

4.      Protection – reduction of unnecessary risks or criticism

4.      Counseling – advice on personal concerns

5.      Exposure and visibility – preparation for greater responsibility

5.      Friendship – a sounding board, perspective

6.      Challenging assignments – development of technical or managerial skills

6.      Divine contact – guidance in decisions


Third: Recognize that No One Mentor will Do It All

It should be obvious that no one mentor cannot function in all 13 mentoring functions at the same time.  What does this mean?  It means an individual will have a variety of mentoring relationships over time each serving a different function in his or her life and developmental process.  Ideally these mentoring relationships enjoy a full constellation of age and life experience.  Mentors may be peers (people similar in age and life experience) or older more experienced individuals.  Kram’s research demonstrates that in the professional context it may be best to seek out a variety of mentors.  She notes,

Given the limitations of mentor relationships, the fact that they are relatively unavailable to most individuals in organizations, and their potential destructiveness in certain situations, it is risky to rely on one individual for all developmental functions.  Relationships with peers can also offer developmental functions, and individuals should develop a relationship constellation that consists of several relationships, each of which provides some career and/or psychosocial functions. (Kram 200)

The concept of a mentoring constellation is helpful to both mentors and mentees.  For mentors the constellation relieves them of having to be omniscient, omnipotent or omnipresent. Nothing makes me run faster from an individual who approaches me for mentoring than the feeling that they expect me to answer every issue of life.  Conversely nothing makes me drop a request for mentoring than seeing that the person I may consider approaching views themselves as the ultimate gateway to my future success or failure. 

Four: See Mentoring as a Continuum

Finding a mentor or mentee also involves seeing mentoring as a continuum (range or variety).  Direct personal interaction with a mentor is classified as an active mentor.  Indirect interaction with a mentor is classified as passive mentoring.  For example Abraham Lincoln serves as one of my indirect mentors in leadership and decision making strategies through his writing and memos written during the civil war.  I gain tremendous insight into how to correct subordinates, how to communicate in conflict and how to remove or place leaders in strategic positions.

Other mentors have direct influence.  For example Dr. J Robert Clinton of Fuller Theological Seminary is one of these for me.  He is an occasional mentor in my life.  We meet once or twice a year sometimes with gaps of years between meetings.  During these times I ask specific questions about leadership or personal development and we discuss his insights and experience as they apply to my situation.  The mentoring continuum is illustrated Figure 1.  The point is that mentors not only serve different functions in life they also exhibit a variety of levels in relationship.  Why is this important?  It helps set appropriate expectations about the degree of involvement to expect from a mentor and the type of outcomes that will emerge from the mentoring relationship. 

Table 2: Mentoring Continuum

Mentoring occurs along a continuum of involvement in terms of mentoring types and functions.  This categorizes mentor involvement into various types depending on the kind of empowerment, deliberateness, depth and awareness of the effort.

Active Mentoring


Occasional Mentoring


Passive mentoring











Challenging Assignments





Acceptance Confirmation

Spiritual Guide

Divine Contact


Role Modeling

Spiritual Guide

Divine Contact

In mentoring others, understanding this continuum is important in planning the kind of empowerment, deliberateness, depth and awareness of the input you intend to give to a Mentee.  For example, if you observe a team member in need of coaching, your time commitment and the nature of the empowerment you seek to provide is both more intense and more deliberate.  Plan to meet a specific need (deficiency) through specifically designed input (role play, simulations, instruction, exercises etc.).  This requires preparation and planning on your part.  Simultaneously however, your coaching efforts may be modeling good coaching for other Managers.  This does not require a deliberate approach or direct definition between you and the other Manager.  However, to the degree that you are aware of the developmental level and empowerment needs of the other Manager you can design your coaching efforts in a way that provides the maximum role modeling impact.

Five: Recognize the Stages of Building a Mentoring Relationship

So, how is the mentoring relationship established?  How does one find a mentor?  First, be aware that active mentoring is characterized by six stages of relationship development (the mentoring lifecycle).

  1. Attraction: a mutual respect or recognition of potential in another’s skills or abilities.  This usually occurs in a period of six months to a year when the relationship becomes important to both participants.  All active mentoring must begin with some degree of attraction to be effective.  Here in is the danger in assigned hierarchical mentoring relationships (such as assigned coaching or remedial training).  If no element of attraction exists then the relationship will simply be ignored at best or develop into an active or passive hostile resistance to the relationship.
  2. Initiation: approaching a mentor or mentee with a plan for development and a request for assistance.  I do not recommend open ended engagements.  Plan on a period of 3 to 6 month increments with a specific review of the results of the mentoring relationship at the end of each period.  This allows the mentor and the mentee to identify and celebrate progress and to adjust to changing situations and needs.  I have experienced mentoring relationships that last up to 5 years in 6 month increments.
  3. Cultivation: the relationship is defined in functional terms.  The objective of a mentoring relationship is that both individuals continue to benefit from the relationship.  When this occurs cultivating the interaction provides opportunities for more frequent and meaningful interaction.  At this point emotional bonds (loyalty, respect etc.) and intimacy (the degree of disclosure and openness) increase.  In cross gender mentoring relationships this stage introduces the greatest risk.  There is an inevitable sexual tension that arises in cross-gender relationships.  Recognizing this internally and defining clear boundaries to the conversation and location of meetings is essential.  Careers have been destroyed by unclear boundaries and naiveté in cross-gender relationships.  Two dynamics are important in cultivation:
    1. Responsiveness: determines whether reciprocity (give and take) exists in the relationship.
    2. Accountability: determines whether follow-through on insight and training will occur.  This definition must be mutual even if the empowerment is defined from a mentor who imposes a development plan aimed at improving productivity.  If a supervisor is utilizing a mentoring function in the course of bringing about remediation of poor performance the employee being mentored must demonstrate a willingness to respond to the coaching or training by practicing new behavior or changing work patterns from the ineffective to a new more effective pattern.
  4. Empowerment: outcomes in the mentoring process are defined.  The full impact of the mentoring process becomes evident.  The senior manager may develop a reputation as a key company mentor or effective trainer or desirable sponsor.  The Mentee experiences greater effectiveness and gathers respect by association with the mentor but also by virtue of his or her growing effectiveness and productivity.  Empowerment may be evidenced in as short a period as several weeks (as with skill development inherent in coaching and teaching functions) or may take months or years to become fully evident (as with sponsorship functions).
  5. Separation: may be a deliberate strategy for moving the mentoring relationship from an active to an occasional to a passive role or an involuntary event that significantly alters the structural role of the relationship.  It may also be initiated in the emotional experience of the relationship for example the Mentee may no longer want guidance but the opportunity to work autonomously.  The mentor must demonstrate the emotional intelligence and the awareness of the developmental level of his or her Mentee to respond positively to this change in the relationship.  Kram points to other possible causes, “Job rotation or promotion limits opportunities for continued interaction; career and psychosocial functions can no longer be provided.  Blocked opportunity creates resentment and hostility that disrupt positive interaction.” (Kram 49)
  6. Redefinition:  an indefinite period after the separation phase when the relationship ends or assumes a significantly different character.  This dynamic is the synthesis point with the concept of situational leadership.  The separation strategy is built on the development level evidenced in the behavior of the Mentee(s) as response is made in the mentoring relationship.

The presence or absence of these dynamics is one means of determining the type of mentoring relationship that exists.  Why is this important to understand?  To the degree that the mentor is deliberate in the definition and use of mentoring models their effectiveness in developing others increases.  The presence or absence of these dynamics also predicts the success of the mentoring relationship.  To the degree that the mentee is aware of all these dynamics the ability to identify appropriate mentors and establish positive relationships that become more productive over time exists.

Six: Don’t Sweat Rejection be Persistent

One last word on how to find a mentor; realize that two in ten leaders may appreciate or have the capability needed to be an effective mentor.  This means that two in ten will most probably turn you down.  Do not despair in rejection.  Press through the embarrassment of rejection to find the mentor that you need. Talk to your peers, expand beyond known networks.  Positive mentoring relationships not only enhance skill they contribute dynamically to a sense of personal identity and satisfaction.