Selecting a Professional Career Mentor

By Mitch Wienick, President, Kelleher Associates, LLC

There have been many articles written on mentorship and the selection of mentees by mentors and coaches by clients in business and other areas of professional life. Mentees are often expected to have a strong work ethic, discipline, persistence, a desire to achieve, and an ability to synthesize information and arrive at original conclusions. These are all praiseworthy attributes and are very sensible.

The flip side of the question, of course, is what are the key characteristics of mentors and coaches that make them attractive to people who want to be mentored or coached by them?

I would suggest seven attributes that should be considered by someone seeking a mentor or a coach – successful, patient, articulate, candid, focused, caring, and accountable.

While it may seem obvious, someone who is known for delivering strong results, getting things done, or exhibiting a mastery in some field or skill, is someone that the mentee, often less skilled and polished, can learn from in ways that are shaping and enduring. In some ways it’s like the classic relationship between the apprentice and the craftsman where the latter passes his art along to the former.

By definition, mentors and coaches know a lot more and have done much more than their mentees. And it has almost always taken the mentor or coach years to acquire the wisdom, skill, polish and knowledge to do what they do so well. It would be unfair and demotivating to expect a novice to absorb what a mentor has to offer in a period of time defined by weeks or even months. Rather, good mentors take the long view and often use years as the yardstick of their horizon.

The ability to communicate clearly orally and in writing (electronic or otherwise) is a valuable skill to have in the absolute and, of course, makes it easier for the mentee to understand and consider what is being conveyed. It can be frustrating to be offered a deep insight or lesson and have little idea what is being said or communicated. Confusing, unclear, and ambiguous messages are often not actionable. Simple, easy to understand, conversational language always wins the day.

Straight talk delivered in a constructive way is an inescapable element of understanding and improvement. In a world of ever increasing political correctness, coded language, and intentional mislabeling and distortion, it’s refreshing to have someone who is direct but thoughtful, authentic and considerate, and who is willing to explain the essence of a situation or a problem.

The potential mentor will be expected to take the role seriously and see it as important as other things they do. Mentors have a well-developed capacity to make the mentee seem like he or she is the only thing on their mind when they meet or talk, not an easy task in a world with urgent demands, challenges and surprises communicated in multiple ways and often near instantaneously.

How many of us have had to visit a medical specialist who seems distracted, distant, and abrupt. Here you are dealing with a critical physical issue and the doctor can seemingly convey an attitude of indifference just when you most need a caring and empathetic approach. Similarly, I would suggest that language and gestures that communicate “you matter” or “ I want to see you succeed” or “I am pleased to be a guide and resource to you” portrays the type of caring that really cements the mentor-mentee or coach-client relationship, and is essential to making the relationship truly worthwhile.

Finally, both mentor-mentee (or coach-client) need to be accountable for the success of the relationship. The old adage “I do what I say I will do” is integral to the relationship. Nothing builds trust more over time than timely follow-through in a quality way. When we think about how often it doesn’t happen in our day-to-day world, making it a core ingredient of this relationship serves to put the finishing touch on what should already be a beneficial and positive interaction.

So, like picking a career and then an employer, careful consideration and selection within a framework of these seven criteria can often make the difference between developing a mentoring relationship that offers enduring benefits, or one that is less satisfying and fulfilling.