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November 9, 2004
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7 steps to finding and keeping a mentor

Those who have mentors are twice as likely to be promoted as those who don’t, says Ellen Fagenson Eland, professor at George Mason University and 2003 Winner of the Mentoring Best Practices Award. So start taking the mentoring process very seriously — it should be a cornerstone of your overall career strategy. Here’s a plan to get you started:

Step 1: Identify a potential mentor. This person can be any age, but the most effective mentor is someone approximately five years ahead of you in your career. A person at this level will know how to navigate your organization at the spot you’re in, and the person will remember what it is like to be where you are. This person should be someone you admire and someone who has good communication skills.

Step 2: Have good questions. Would-be mentors are most receptive to people who ask good questions. What makes a good question? It should reveal that you are both directed and driven. But the question should also demonstrate that you understand the mentor’s expertise and you can use it well. So, a question like, “What should I do with my life?” would be out.

Step 3: Don’t expect miracles. A mentor is not going to rescue your whole career, even if she can. People want to mentor a rising star, so look like you’re on track when you ask for help. Ask, “What skills should I develop to earn an education policy analyst job with a Senator?” rather than, “Can you get me a job with a Senator?” even if the mentor is Caroline Kennedy.

Step 4: Be a good listener. This person is not your therapist. You ask a question, and then listen. If the mentor needs to know more, he’ll ask. Do not tell your life story. It is not interesting. If it were, you’d be writing a book or doing standup, right? If you find yourself talking more than the mentor, then get a therapist before you scare your mentor away.

Step 5: Prove you’re serious. You can demonstrate that you’re hungry for counsel by implementing the advice your mentor gave, showing the result, and then going back for more. So, if your mentor suggests you get on project X, get yourself there, do a good job, and report back to your mentor that you are grateful for the advice because you were able to learn a lot and shine. Your mentor will be much more willing to give you her time and energy after you’ve proven yourself to be a quick and eager study.

Step 6: Always be on the lookout. One is not enough. Each person needs a few mentors, because no mentor lasts forever, and each has a different expertise. Two of my best mentors were very different from each other. One helped me to fit in with the guys so that I could succeed at a company where I was the only woman in management. Another mentor helped me to keep my sanity and my focus when balancing work and children seemed totally impossible.

Step 7: Give back. The best way to learn how to rope in a mentor is to be a mentor yourself. You’ll find out first hand what makes a protégée annoying, which will, in turn, make you a less annoying protégée. You’ll also discover why helping someone else grow is so rewarding, which will give you the courage to ask people to help you.

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Hi Penelope, just want to share with you on my recent experience related to mentoring. I got to know a person who works for my organization in another location. Through a couple of interations in meetings and individual conversations I found her to be very people oriented and experienced specifically in the organization we belong to. One month ago I wrote an email expressing wish to be a protegee of her. I thought the email was written appropriately but got no return for more than one month. It was exactly when I was thinking I probably did something stupid I got a note from her which was very positive and offering. We are going to have phone conversation next week.. I’m yet to see how this turns out but the article you wrote here does trigger thinking on how we could proactively manage good mentoring relationships. So thanks to you and will keep you updated on my real life efforts:-).

Jasmine, congratulations on taking that first step, which, of course, is always the hardest. It sounds like she is very open to helping you.

The phone call is a good time for you to have a very specific agenda, by the way. So that your potential mentor can feel right away that she has something to offer you.

And, on the off-chance that this doesn’t turn out well, you should feel great about reaching out to someone to mentor you. Not all mentors are great, but all efforts to get a mentor are positive steps.

Hi Penelope,
DO you think it is appropriate to attempt to find a mentor in the place you work (in the same professional field)? Wouldn’t there be a “conflict of interest” with that potential mentor?

* * * * * *

Finding a mentor in one’s own office is totally appropriate. It is in everyone’s best interest if people you work with are getting the help they need to be their best selves and perform at their best capacity at the office.  The person you directly report to is already responsible for your performance, so in order to expand the scope of the help you’re getting, look for a mentor who you don’t report to.


Hi, Thank you for your informative information, I have put some of your suggestions to practice and have found the results very rewarding. I would like to add that when your boss is having a stressful day and they all do, Just stop and take a quick break to breath in some fresh air, this can be done by a simple walk to the bathroom or the coffee pot. The point is take a brain break to gather your thoughts and refocus. Remember your boss is human after all. I say something supportive on the way out of my bosses office.


Thanks for the article. It’s quite interesting to read what you’ve written about having a mentor in work life but do you think without a mentor things wouldnt work out for an individual or would it be still workable but difficult?
I’m one of those individuals who never had a mentor but thankfully doing well in my career. Though I realize that I’m a mentor to a lot of people in my life but just wondering what am I losing if I dont have one?

Thanks in advance…

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Mukesh, I’m surprised that if you are mentoring someone else, and adding value to their career, that it would not be clear to you that you also could have a mentor adding value to your own career. If you are meeting all your goals right now, then your goals for yourself are too low. If you are not meeting all your goals, then find a mentor to help you.

A good book to read to understand the sadness and futility of trying to navigate this world with no help from others is Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi.


This is exactly what I expected to find out after reading the title poetry. Thanks for informative article

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Penelope Trunk is a columnist at the Boston Globe. She has launched three startups and endured an IPO, a merger and a bankruptcy. more >

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