“Structure dictates behavior.”
“You can’t change the direction of a river by yelling at it.”
“This being so, so what?”
“Make other people the editor (versus co-writer) of your plans.”

These are some of my most common sayings that I learned from my mentor. In my case this was a person who was paid to tell me to stop getting in my own way. He altered my career trajectory. Not my title, I was already President at the time, but the quality of my performance in the role and my capacity to still be effective as we doubled our team.

Finding the right mentor changes your career trajectory. They can shift a person from middling, or even deteriorating, to an engaged, active value-builder who becomes indispensable. I’ve had several and they are the reason I succeed.

One mentor sent me John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change,” and said the song was the embodiment of my lazy approach to living up to my potential. Another drove me to a Ferrari dealer and roughly said something like if you’re chasing other people’s approval or permission, you’re chasing their goals. Have your own goal, even if it’s just a car. (That same mentor also taught me, “if you have to ask the price you can’t afford it.” I still don’t own a Ferrari and still don’t know how much one costs.)

These are things I still think about, literally, decades later. How do you find a mentor who can create this type of impact? Here are a few thoughts.

Make a starting list

It seems like a lot of folks get lost at the first step. When trying to name a good, potential mentor they draw a blank. I believe that’s because they start by thinking too broadly. That is, they try to think of anyone who could be a great fit. I suggest working through a set of groups of people to come up with a starting list.

Here are some ideas for groups you could work through to find some great options:

  • Anyone you already talk to at least once a month you think would be a good mentor.
  • Anyone you’ve talked to in the last 2-3 months that impressed you.
  • Presenters at conferences that shifted your approach to something.
  • The writers of blog articles who you find yourself returning to.
  • Previous co-workers you admired.
  • Friends who are ahead of you in their careers.

This list is likely to have some folks that you have a near zero chance of getting to be your mentor. That’s OK! Dream big when you create the list. You’ll refine that list in the next section.

Find a person 2 steps ahead of you

What does the President of a 100-person agency have to teach that will be useful within the next couple years to an entry-level account analyst? Maybe some basic things, but it will mostly be theoretical, like how to stress less – those types of things. This is because a President spends most of her time giving people authority, sharing her opinion, and giving other people information (that’s either stored in her head, or that she only has access to).

Conversely, an entry level analyst spends most of his time writing reports, pulling levers in accounts, and taking tasks off other people’s plate. They do, you know, actual work. By the time a person is running a 100-person company they have forgotten most of what it means to have to produce work output. An entry level person is several steps away from being at that spot and thus, will be constantly teased with the easier day-to-day life (although more stressful and significantly year-to-year life) and lose sight of what they need to be doing today, and tomorrow, to get where they want to be two days from now.

Finding someone too close to your current role means they’ll empathize with you too much. They remember what it was like. Agree that what you’re doing is hard and sometimes awful. They’ll tell you too much about how they did it, and not enough helping you see how you, with your unique background and skills, can be successful doing it.

2 steps ahead isn’t entirely literal and doesn’t have to mean job title. It could mean they are managing a team the size yours will grow to in the next couple years. It could mean they are working at the size of an organization you want to be in at your next big career move. It just means far enough up the road that they won’t listen to you complain, but close enough to where you are today that their advice is tangible.

Go through the list of potential mentors and scratch out any that are too far ahead (or behind) you! No offense, but that will likely remove those folks that you are unlikely to be able to convince to mentor you.

Who on your list can you create value for?

Is someone on your list trying to learn more about your industry? Have you heard any of them talk about how much they enjoy mentoring people? Anyone post a problem on social media that you know how to solve? Go through your list of potential mentors and think deeply about the value you can create for them if they were to engage with you. The value will likely not be equal, as in you will get more value out of the relationship than the mentor, but it will be more rewarding for both of you if each of you is getting some value out of talking with each other.

Your chances of getting a yes from a mentor increase if the value is a two way street!

Look at paying folks

Of course, not everyone can afford to pay. But some of the best mentors out there do it for a living. Folks on your list that charge may be your best first option. Often you can ask your boss if the company can help. There are some grants, although those are highly regionally/industry specific. It may be worth putting off on that new car or a big expense, for another year if you can.

The big benefit to you is professional coaches have a built-in incentive to show up and be prepared at each of your meetings. That’s why I’ve gotten the most value out of times I’ve paid folks.

Take action, right now

Now that you have a handful of potential mentors, you have to make the ask. No one out there is going to take this on. If they do, you won’t be as committed. You won’t get on a new trajectory. Some people will tell you no. Someone will tell you yes. That one person, that one connection, that one person’s wisdom, your commitment to that relationship, and your willingness to get punched in the stomach over-and-over, can change your career, and life, trajectory. Most people will go back to twitter, their email, go into their next meeting. Be different. Reach out to 1 person who could be that perfect fit for you, right now.

In short, what you need to do to get started

  • Make a starting list
  • Find someone 2 steps ahead of you
  • Figure out who you can create value for too
  • Don’t forget about paid mentors
  • Do something, RIGHT NOW

The right mentor can change your career, and your life. So don’t wait, starting making your list right now and be well on your way to becoming an indispensable and active value-builder for your company and your industry.


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