Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky enough to have some fantastic mentors. The professors, journalists and businesspeople I look to for guidance have offered advice that goes beyond the standard “get ahead” career talk.
Having a handful of leaders share their wisdom and experiences with me has taught me how to communicate more effectively, lead with empathy, value my work and be a better person and professional overall.
When thinking back on the relationships that have helped me grow, there are certain qualities that I’ve valued the most. Whether you’re looking for a great mentor — or want to be a better mentor for others — these traits set the best apart:
They’re Different (Enough) From You
It’s natural to be drawn to people who have similar personalities, interests and goals as you. One of the first mentors I sought out was a female writer/producer who liked all the same things I did. Our meetings were a lot of fun, and she soon became a close friend. At some point, however, we both laughed when we realized that we weren’t exactly expanding each other’s horizons.
Although it might seem like the obvious choice to establish connections within your industry, working with a mentor who has different experiences from you can help you broaden your approach and look at a situation from many sides.
They Have Wide-Ranging Interests
My longest-running mentor relationship is with an Emmy-Award-winning-journalist-turned-college-professor who also happens to be a black belt in Taekwondo and to speak fluent Russian. It’s been fascinating to learn about her life and career, but the bigger lesson she’s taught me is that professional development shouldn’t stop at the end of your work day.
A great mentor is a dedicated professional, but not a workaholic. Look for people who actively pursue opportunities for learning, growth and self-improvement, whether that’s lending their skills to the board of a nonprofit, taking dance or coding classes, leading community programming at their church, or simply surrounding themselves with a diverse circle.
They Push You Out of Your Comfort Zone
When I was 25, I landed a job at a big media company. My boss was a sharp, hilarious and candid video producer who would go on to become a great mentor to me. At some point, we talked about our career paths. She revealed how she had successfully negotiated her salary before starting, and I’m sure the reaction on my face said it all: I had never even considered asking for more.
She taught me that not only was it OK to push back, it was often expected. A few years later, when I was about to accept my current job, I could hear her words nudging me out of my comfort zone to negotiate the offer. I agonized over whether or not to do so, but finally went for it despite my anxiety. It was terrifying, and I’m pretty sure I was sweating profusely. But the company came back with an offer that was several thousand dollars more. When I calculated how much money I would have missed out on over the years, I realized just how valuable her push really was.
They Won’t Just Tell You What You Want to Hear
A good mentor isn’t afraid to be straightforward, even when it’s not something you want to hear. When I was contemplating moving into the nonprofit sector, I wasn’t thrilled when a mentor thought I needed to get more familiar with certain procedures first — or when she said that I should expect to take a pretty big pay cut.
At first, I felt like she didn’t believe in me, but later I realized that she was providing realistic, useful guidance that would equip me to make more informed decisions.
You can’t look forward without looking back, and a good mentor understands the power of reflecting on her own successes and failures. You want a mentor who approaches decision-making — both professionally and personally — with careful thought and intention, made sharper through the lens of experience.
They Value People More Than the Bottom Line
I’ll never forget hearing how one mentor would approach his meetings with “problem” employees who weren’t performing up to expected standards. Instead of giving them a firm warning to shape up or ship out, his first move was empathy. He would allow them a chance to talk openly one on one, and his compassionate listening skills often unveiled deeper things happening in their lives.
From there, he’d make sure his employees had the resources and guidance they needed to succeed. It was evident that supporting his employees was an essential part of his leadership, and I admired his commitment to people.
This kind of person will also view mentoring as an opportunity for growth — for both of you. You don’t want a mentor who wonders, “What’s in it for me?” Instead, you want someone who sees you as a whole person and is interested in helping you reach your full potential.