Finding someone with the perfect combination of mentor traits is no simple task.
A good mentor is inspiring, yet accessible. They have the time to listen and also have their own successful career. They're empathetic and give honest feedback.
With so many qualities to consider, it's no wonder people feel overwhelmed when looking for a mentor.
The thing is, not all mentors have the same impact. Think about the ones you've had in your life so far. Some may have been amazing (lucky, you!) while others may have been more concerned about their problems and egos.
Finding a good mentor is important for building a successful career. Mentors can share which skills you need to get promoted, give tips for managing workplace relationships, and introduce you to their expansive network. The benefits are endless.
Now, you need to find someone who fits the bill. You may even be working to become a mentor yourself. Either way, we'll walk through what a mentor is and which traits to look for so you recognize a great mentor when they cross your path.
What is a mentor?
A mentor is a trusted advisor who provides you with the tools, guidance, and feedback you need to succeed in your career. Almost anyone can be a mentor – a peer, a manager, a friend, a boss, a school alumnus, or a family member.
But a mentor isn't an influencer or someone you only follow online. They need to be connected to your life and consistent enough to advise you over a period of time. That said, a mentorship relationship can last for years or a short period of time.
The longer you know a mentor, the more they get to know your learning style, personality, and long-term goals. This lets them share advice that's more relevant to you and full of context. On the other hand, short mentor-mentee relationships are great for handling specific situations or challenges. For example, you may meet a mentor through an informational interview while job hunting. If all goes well, they might offer you a referral or connect you to the hiring manager.
Both short and long-term mentorships can help you grow and expand your network. Chances are, you'll have both types of mentors throughout your career. As you look for your go-to people for career guidance, keep these top nine mentor traits in mind.
9 Qualities of a Good Mentor
1. Identifies Your Needs and Strengths
Everyone has unique strengths and weaknesses. A good mentor understands this and works to learn what makes their mentee tick.
While you likely have an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, it's helpful to hear what someone else thinks. For example, I consider myself a strong communicator. But a few years back, one of my mentors recommended that I incorporate more empathy into my feedback.
My direct style wasn't always the best approach. So before sending feedback, I'd ask my mentor to look over my points and make recommendations. In time, I learned how to share feedback that was more considerate, clear, and empathetic.
A great mentor knows how to build your weaknesses and expand your strengths so you fill in important skill gaps.
2. Shares Room for Improvement
It's tough to give honest feedback. It requires incredible communication skills and a level of openness that not many people are comfortable spending time in.
That's why a mentor who "finds ways for you to grow in areas inside and outside the workplace" is irreplaceable, said Ashlie Benson, Chief of Staff for Agricycle Global. This trait is what differentiates a mentor from a cheerleader.
A mentor knows your career progression, your desired path, and your strengths and weaknesses. They can see the gaps that need to be filled to achieve your goals. A cheerleader, on the other hand, is only there to offer encouragement.
While a mentor can be a cheerleader at times, their role is to make you better – not just make you feel better.
3. Gains Your Trust and Respect
A mentor is someone you can look up to. You respect them for their work, their ethos, and their unique personality.
You also may share information with them that you don't share with anyone else, which is why they have to be trustworthy. For any mentor-mentee relationship to last – and be beneficial for both sides – you need to be able to have difficult conversations. This can include talking through issues that arise at work (such as salary negotiations, promotions, difficulties with a colleague or manager, quitting a job, or getting let go).
Trusting someone enough to share challenges takes time. So look for a mentor who respects this time and doesn't push you to spill personal information right from the start. The goal is to build a relationship that's open, respectful, and professional.
4. Expresses Empathy
Empathy is important for every working relationship, but it's an essential quality for mentorship.
Mentors with high levels of emotional intelligence listen to and empathize with you. They understand that you're human and make mistakes. And they make you feel comfortable talking about both the good and the bad things happening in your life.
That's why it's best to look for a mentor who understands that life happens, people get sick, and priorities change. They should be willing to show their humanity and offer guidance in a way that resonates with you as a person.
5. Has Relevant Knowledge and Skills
Of all the traits to look for in a mentor, this one usually matters most.
Mentors with relevant knowledge and skills have been in a similar position as you, so they can offer role or industry-specific advice as you navigate your career and achieve your goals.
I looked for a mentor with this specific quality when I started my own company. I didn't have much experience negotiating contracts, managing budgets, or handling unpaid invoices. I needed guidance beyond Google.
Fortunately, I found Austin Adesso, who had been successfully running his creative agency Partners in Post for several years. His advice helped me learn to negotiate longer contracts and charge a competitive price for my work.
Find a mentor with the skills and experience you'd like to have, and rely on them for knowledge. Just remember that your journey is unique, so do what feels right for you when considering the tips they offer.
6. Listens and Reflects
It's easy to hand out advice. But it takes skill to know whether or not that advice is great for the person you give it to.
Great mentors understand the importance of active listening and intentional guidance. They ask questions to figure out every angle of a situation before offering suggestions. Sometimes, they simply listen.
Mentors who can listen and reflect on the information they're given often understand more about you as a person. They know your specific history and situation, so their suggestions are more relevant to you. One mentor of mine often lets me talk through issues without offering a single piece of advice. Instead, they ask questions to help me come to my own conclusions. This has developed my problem-solving skills, as well as my confidence in decision-making.
If you know someone who is a great listener and offers thoughtful advice, they may be a good mentor for you.
7. Invested in Your Growth and Development
Mentors help you grow both personally and professionally by sharing ways to improve and offering timely advice.
But what sets the best mentors apart is the ability to focus on your development as well as their own. Of course, you want a mentor who has been in your position and who can help you grow. If a mentor also puts time into developing themselves and breaking out of their comfort zones, you've found a gem.
These types of people often have their own mentors. They constantly work to improve themselves and are usually life-long learners. Not only do they pursue their own passions, but they also encourage your goals and creativity.
8. Strong Relationships and Networks
Not all mentors are older or more experienced than you. Personally, I have a mentor who is younger than me but with many more years of experience in a particular niche.
The one thing you do want to consider, despite age or experience, is your mentor's relationships. Do they have a strong network? Are they connected to influential people in your industry? Are they willing to introduce you or recommend you for a role?
A good mentor has spent years developing solid relationships with people – and they're willing to bring you into their close circle. This can help expand your network and open up opportunities you may not have had otherwise. One of my mentors, Meg Prater – a Senior Manager of Content at HubSpot – has connected me to a number of people when I've been looking for job recommendations or new business clients.
As in all relationships, mentorship isn't one-sided. Mentors also look for mentees with strong networks to expand their professional connections. So put time into developing your relationships and growing your network. You never know who may be of interest to a mentor.
9. Ability to Devote Time to Mentorship
Many people have the traits to be good mentors but can't devote the time it demands. A mentor-mentee relationship takes effort from both sides. Without dedication, it won't work.
A good mentor should be willing to hop on a call, send a thoughtful email, or meet up for coffee. If they're not, the relationships can quickly fizzle. Of course, there's plenty of legwork the mentee has to do to keep the relationships strong. But the mentor must be able to offer support in exchange for the mentee's efforts.
That said, there's no predetermined amount of time for good mentorship. It depends on the people involved and the nature of the relationship. You might talk to a mentor once a quarter or meet up once a month for lunch. Some of your mentors may only be around for a short time, while others may be around for life. Ultimately, it's up to you and your mentor to decide the cadence that works best.
Once you do find someone with these mentor traits who inspires you, work on developing a relationship with them, rather than asking them to be your mentor right away. In time, you won't feel the pressure of asking them to be your mentor – you'll simply be getting guidance from a friend.