Earnings and Yearnings: Mentor Makeover

Dos and don'ts for cultivating the perfect mix of gurus

By Michele Lent Hirsch, published on July 3, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

You'd like to think that someone who recognizes your hard work and talent will materialize and grant you well-deserved opportunities. But since such fairy godmothers aren't floating above your cubicle, it's important to seek out real mentors on the ground. And simply "knowing" a big shot will not automatically enhance your career.

Mentoring relationships that help you advance require active effort. What's more, experts say, you'd be remiss in thinking that one type of mentor is enough.

Wise advice from a former boss or lunchtime morale boosts from a coworker will always be of value, says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Work-Life Policy. But mentors who cheer you on and reassure you shouldn't be mistaken for those who stick out their necks in concrete ways and provide projects or connections.

Organizational psychologist Ben Dattner, author of The Blame Game, agrees: There's a difference between a mentor who acts as an adviser and one who advocates or intervenes on your behalf. Because advisers and advocates each have pros and cons, your mentor landscape isn't complete until you've secured both types. Expecting one person to play both parts can prove surprisingly hazardous.

Whether you've got one kind of guru but not the other or feel unsure about where to begin, note that mentorship comes with its own etiquette and risks. Follow these guidelines for a people-powered lift.

Do aim for people with clout.

Hewlett found that women, more than men, perceive the tapping of a colleague's power as unnecessary, scheming, and even "dirty." If it feels slimy or calculating to sidle up to those with influence, remember that your next career move could depend on it. Whether you're a freelance photographer looking for new clients or a middle manager hoping to reach the executive suite, not everyone has equal power to recommend you for a sought-after gig. Being realistic about someone's status doesn't make you a sycophant. Toiling away and producing great work does not alone grant you entree, so find a high-powered pal with whom you genuinely click.

Do have a wandering eye.

Cultivating multiple advisers and advocates at once isn't dishonest and doesn't qualify as "cheating." If one person you're counting on doesn't come through, it's important to have other strong allies. What if your one true mentor starts ignoring your emails—or, worse yet, gets fired? In addition to cultivating helpers in your midst, look beyond your organization for external gurus. Should something go awry at your current job, says Hewlett, you'll want to know someone who wasn't part of the bridge-burning. Finding new connections is imperative if your career plans completely change, of course. But even a slight readjustment to your goals could warrant a new advocate who is closer to where you want to be.

Do remember that help is transactional.

The traditional adviser takes you under his wing and lavishes you with advice; in return he receives warm fuzzies. The relationship is mostly private, and carries little risk. But the advocate who publicly takes a bet on you—by forwarding your resume and endorsing your work, or tapping you to manage a project she can't afford to see fail—expects concrete returns. Though your primary concern should be to do your best on assignments, you must also keep in mind the law of reciprocity. If you aren't yet in a position to get your advocate's son an internship or support her petition for tenure, in the meantime at least send flowers or offer to dog-sit. Keep in mind that an adviser's expectations aren't necessarily spelled out. You might be called upon several years from now to provide assistance or expertise.

Don't turn your advocate into a shrink.

Someone weighing the risks of investing in your career won't be inspired by instability or jitters. If you've shared too much of your vulnerable side with someone, he'll be less likely to have confidence in your long-term prospects. When dealing with potential advocates, present yourself as a confident, self-assured, and reliable worker. To vent insecurities or woes, go to your pals and most nurturing advisers. (And if your emotions are particularly difficult to get a handle on, seek out an actual therapist.)

Don't let a mentor cross your boundaries, either.

Unfortunately, researchers say, there are people who will take credit for your work, ask you to do something unethical, or attempt to sabotage you. As with all other arenas, it's important to get a good read on someone before embarking on a relationship. And once one has begun, says Dattner, be careful to avoid inextricably linking your names. If you're too closely identified with someone, your fortunes might rise and fall with his. Be sure to work on some projects independently from your biggest advocate. If a mentor is making you uncomfortable—or if you suspect a "project" is less than ethical—try to handle the situation gracefully without jeopardizing your values.

Don't rely on a formal mentorship program.

"There's more loyalty and better chemistry in informal mentors," says Dattner, as the bond isn't forced. Though experts do applaud companies that have set up matching systems—sometimes focused specifically on women and minorities—benefits and trust are greater among pairs who've sought each other out.

Don't look for the perfect role model.

Just because someone shares your gender or ethnicity does not mean they'll be the best fit for either adviser or advocate, says Dattner. In addition to these more obvious traits, Hewlett found that women tend to overly value female advocates whom they see as leading "model lives." Whereas men seek out people with power, says Hewlett, women seek out people with power who also have family structures and personalities that seem ideal. The women she studied were concerned not just with a person's professional reach but whether she was married or divorced, had children, and seemed well liked. Rather than worry whether someone has all the characteristics of the life you'd like to lead, focus on whether she can help you get ahead.