Seek Out Mentors

There’s no such thing as a self-made man or woman.

Behind every successful individual are mentors—teachers, coaches, advisors—who have supported and invested in them. Basketball players have free throw coaches; pop stars, voice coaches. Even CEOs seek guidance from executive coaches and more experienced CEOs. You need a mentor (or several) as well.

Mentors are critical to your career development. Having walked the path themselves, they help you navigate shortcuts and avoid pitfalls. Some may open doors that no amount of hard work will unlock.

Each mentor-protégé relationship differs. But in my experience, mentors can:

Give you objective career advice.
Though your manager may help you, their loyalty is to your employer. Their advice is colored, consciously or not, by their own interest and that of the company. After all, what manager wants to lose a star employee? An external mentor, however, is unbiased by such concerns.

Frustrated with stagnation in my job, I asked for more responsibility. In response, one of the startup’s cofounders gave me his motivational spiel: “Don’t think of it as a job. We’re here to build a company.”

When I recounted this conversation to my mentor, he set me straight: As an employee, I must work with integrity to advance the company’s mission. But career decisions are my own. I must not conflate the two.

Offer a perspective from experience.
This is particularly helpful for goal-setting. Like many of my peers, I had aspired to become a hospital CEO. Prestige, money, influence—that seemed like the dream job.

“What does a hospital CEO do?” asked my mentor. I admitted that I had no idea. He went on to explain why he, as a seasoned hospital COO, decided not to pursue the top seat and exhorted me to dig deeper.

Over dinner with another mentor, I asked about his path to being a hospital CEO. It requires dedication, he said, and sacrifice: “You must go where the opportunity is—but make sure it’s worth it to you.” He had spent years away from his wife and children, moving around the U.S. in pursuit of his career goal. I always appreciate hearing my mentors’ stories. They contain wisdom that comes only with experience.

Tell you hard truths.
I once attended a networking event at my mentor’s hospital. Afterward he pulled me aside: “Did you notice how others were dressed?” (Yes, much more formally than I had anticipated.) “Look the part,” he admonished, “Don’t let people dismiss you by your appearance.”

Nobody likes being reproved. But as the old proverb says: “Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy.” People who care about you—close friends and mentors—will call you out, not to put you down but to build you up. Listen to their constructive criticism. Take it to heart.

Connect you with people and opportunities.
Most mentors are happy to introduce you to colleagues—or refer you for jobs—in your areas of interest. One mentor even offered me a side gig working on his consulting projects. Through that experience, I gained valuable skills that I could apply in future jobs.

By no means do these examples represent all mentoring relationships. As the mentee, it’s your responsibility to drive the relationship. Mentoring can be formal or informal, general or specific. Know what you want from each mentor, and communicate it. They can guide you only if you have a destination in mind.

Finally, show your appreciation. Mentors invest in you without expecting anything in return. So take every initiative to express your gratitude. Be respectful of their time. Follow up on commitments. And remember to pay it forward.

This is the fifth post in our series: Advice for New Graduates.