What Is a Mentor?

By Chris Kolmar
Sep. 27, 2022

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The concept of mentoring has been around for thousands of years, and it’s just as valuable today. If you aren’t quite sure what a mentor is, though, keep reading.

We’ll talk about what a mentor is, the different types of mentors, and the benefits of having a mentor, as well as the skills a mentor can help you develop. We’ll also give you advice on how to find a mentor and how to be a good mentee.

Key Takeaways

  • A mentor is someone who shares their experience with someone else in order to help them achieve success.

  • There are many types of mentors, including practical mentors, coping mentors, and peer mentors, to name just a few.

  • Having a mentor can help you avoid burnout, improve your skills, and make wise career choices.

What is a Mentor?

What is a Mentor?

A mentor has overcome certain professional obstacles and takes another, less-experienced professional (usually called a “mentee”) under their wing. In a mentor-mentee relationship, the former provides the tips, training, and guidance that will make it easier for the latter to achieve success throughout their career.

Of course, no two career paths are quite the same, which means that every mentor-mentee relationship will be unique. At the same time, certain themes are common to the vast majority of mentor-mentee relationships.

What Are the Different Types of Mentors?

There are a few different categories of mentors out there to choose from. If you decide to seek a mentor in the future, it will be important to understand these different types of mentors in order to find the one that will be most helpful to your career goals.

Here are seven common types of mentors that you should be aware of:

  • Practical mentor. A practical mentor is someone that you would seek out to receive practical advice for a particular situation. If you have a disagreement with a colleague, for example, a practical mentor can provide you with some tips for reaching a diplomatic and mutually agreeable solution.

  • Coping mentor. If you’ve been struggling with a significant amount of work-related stress, a coping mentor can step in to serve as a sounding board, which will give you the freedom and the opportunity to vent your frustrations safely.

  • Peer mentor. A peer mentor is an individual who occupies a role that is similar to yours and who can give you the tips and guidance that you’ll need to be at your best while you’re at work. Peer mentors are especially useful if you’re just getting started in a new position, and you’re looking for a little extra help learning the ropes.

  • Reverse mentor. Most mentor-mentee relationships are composed of an older, more experienced mentor and a younger, less experienced mentee. But that’s not always the case. In a reverse mentorship, that traditional dynamic is flipped on its head.

    The typical reverse mentorship is composed of an older, more experienced employee seeking the opinion of a younger, less experienced employee. This is a great way, for example, for a new executive officer to check in with younger team members and learn more about how folks at the ground level perceive their management style.

  • Aspirational mentor. An aspirational mentor embodies the character traits you would like to develop throughout your career. An aspirational mentor might be, for example, someone who works within your company who exudes the confidence, competence, and charisma that you would like to cultivate. More than anything else, an aspirational mentor helps you to work towards personal development.

  • Career mentor. A career mentor is a professional who has attained a high degree of success and provides a mentee with the expert tips needed to excel within the hierarchy of a particular department, organization, or industry.

  • Identity mentor. An identity mentor is someone with whom you share a particular identity (it could be gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, nationality, sexual orientation, etc.) and who can provide you with practical guidance and mentoring about how to achieve success.

    Given that every identity group faces a unique array of obstacles on the path to professional success, an identity mentor can be a useful asset in helping you come to terms with the particular challenges and opportunities that lay ahead of you.

The Benefits of Mentoring

Every professional inevitably encounters challenges throughout his or her career. It’s the natural order of things, and – as we mentioned previously – it’s one of the key indicators of professional progress.

However, if you’re not careful, these new challenges can quickly compound and lead to stress, exhaustion, and even burnout. To overcome new challenges as you advance throughout your career, it’s essential to continually update your skill set, including both hard and soft skills.

Working with a mentor is a highly effective way to:

  • Avoid burnout

  • Sharpen critical skills

  • Build confidence

  • Deepen your professional relationships

  • Develop a concrete plan for the next steps in your career

  • Avoid common career pitfalls

  • Overcome challenges

What Skills Can a Mentor Help You to Develop?

First and foremost, a mentor can help you build technical skills (also known as “hard skills”) that can help you thrive within your particular role, organization, and industry. For example, if you’re a software developer, a mentor may be able to help you hone basic and essential hard skills like cryptography and mastering programming languages.

In addition to technical skills, a mentor might also provide a mentee with some instruction around essential interpersonal skills (or “soft skills”). These might include:

  • Leadership skills. Teaching a mentee how to take on more responsibilities at work and be a role model for other employees.

  • Communication skills. Providing instruction on how to interact with colleagues more productively and efficiently.

  • Problem-solving skills. Teaching a mentee how to approach work-related problems from multiple angles.

  • Self-advocacy skills. Helping a mentee to develop the confidence and ability to speak up for themselves at work.

  • Stress management. Providing useful tips related to the proper maintenance of well-being and mental health in a stressful working environment.

The bottom line is that the ideal mentor-mentee relationship provides a dynamic and wide range of instruction. A mentor helps a less-experienced professional hone their technical skillset; they also help them develop the critical interpersonal skills they can apply throughout their careers.

How to Find the Perfect Mentor

Now that we have an idea of the major types of mentor-mentee relationships out there, it’s time to ask ourselves: how should one go about finding a mentor?

There are three basic steps to this process:

  1. Define your goals. The first step will be to define the specific qualities that you’re looking for in a mentor. Again, these will vary on a case-by-case basis, depending on what you’re hoping to achieve throughout your career. As a jumping-off point, you might refer to the list of soft skills outlined above (leadership skills, communication skills, problem-solving skills, etc.).

    Which of those will you need to cultivate to be maximally successful within your particular career path? Then, once you have an idea of the soft skills you’d like to develop, take some time to think deeply about the technical skills you’d like to improve upon. Be sure to write down all of these soft and hard skills and keep them close at hand – they will be your guide as you set out to find your mentor.

  2. Identify your candidates. Once you have a clear idea of the specific areas you’d like to improve, it will be time to start looking for potential mentors. There are four key attributes to be on the lookout for when you’re searching for a mentor:

    • Competence. Do they show a mastery of the skills that you’re looking to hone?

    • Compatibility. Is it likely that the two of you will get along and enjoy each other’s company for an extended period of time?

    • Trust. Are you confident that you can rely on this person’s advice?

    • Availability. Will this individual be able to commit the time and attention that’s needed to be a part of a mentor-mentee relationship?

  3. Reach out to them. For many people, this is the most challenging step in the entire process of finding a mentor. More often than not, the professionals we admire have a heavier workload than we do, making it tricky to find the perfect time to approach them and ask them to be our mentor.

    The key is to get your timing right. Rather than just approaching them point-blank at their desk and asking them to be your mentor, reach out to them first via email to determine whether they might have a moment to meet with you for lunch or coffee. Then, once you’ve set aside a time to meet with them face to face, you’ll be able to rest assured knowing that you have their full attention.

    Once you meet with them, be sure to keep these three tips in mind before you ask them to be your mentor:

    • Be flexible. When you do pop the question, remember to be open to a variety of different circumstances. Depending on their bandwidth and schedule, they may not be available to participate in precisely the kind of mentor-mentee relationship that you were aiming for. In all likelihood, you will have to adjust your schedule to accommodate them – not the other way around.

    • Open up the meeting by providing some context. Before you ask someone to be your mentor, you should first give them some background about (a) what you’re hoping to achieve from a mentorship and (b) why you’re approaching them specifically. In this way, you’ll give your prospective mentor a much clearer idea of the specific type of mentor-mentee relationship they would be signing up for.

    • Be courteous. It’s equally important to enter into this conversation with gratitude, regardless of the outcome. Even if they’re unable or unwilling to start mentoring you, you should remember to enthusiastically thank them for putting in the time to meet with you. It also never hurts to follow-up with a thank-you email (even if their answer is no).

How to Be a Good Mentee (and a Good Mentor)

Finally, to establish an ideal mentor-mentee relationship, both parties must know what’s expected of them. A mentor-mentee relationship, after all, is a two-way street. For one to get the most out of the experience, it’s essential for the other also to be fully committed to playing their part.

With that in mind, here are a few simple and practical tips for being a great mentee, as well as a great mentor:

Tips for being a good mentee:

  • Always be sure to show engagement, enthusiasm, and interest when you’re interacting with your mentor.

  • Remember to actively implement your mentor’s advice in your day-to-day work.

  • Don’t be overbearing – remember that your mentor’s time is limited and that they may not always be able to respond to you immediately or meet with you at the times that are most convenient for your schedule.

Tips for being a good mentor:

  • Practice active listening. Ensure that you’re engaged in each conversation with your mentee and genuinely making an effort to understand their circumstances and goals.

  • Always be clear about expectations. Make sure that your mentee understands your schedule, time limitations, and preferred mode(s) of communication.

  • Whenever possible, be sure to connect your mentee with professional opportunities that are directly relevant to their goals.

Final Thoughts

One of the key indicators that you’re making progress in your career is that you’re regularly encountering new challenges. When we push ourselves beyond our comfort zones, we enable ourselves to grow – both as individuals and as professionals.

Of course, it can be nerve-wracking and disorienting to step foot into unfamiliar terrain. Take promotions, for example. Although we’re always striving towards getting a promotion at work, many of us are susceptible to feeling unqualified and undeserving once we’ve achieved the coveted promotion. It’s known as impostor syndrome, and if you’ve ever experienced it, you know how very real it can feel – even when you rationally understand that you’ve earned your current position.

Employee burnout provides another illustrative example of how a professional might struggle as they progress throughout their career. Every year, millions of hardworking employees work themselves to the brink of total exhaustion in a relentless effort to keep up with their growing work responsibilities. Many of these employees feel that if they were to slow down at work, they would be sacrificing all of the hard-earned success they’ve managed to achieve. As a result, they continue to perpetuate their downward spiral towards burnout.

How, then, can a professional manage to update their skill set, maintain their confidence, and keep stress at bay as they climb the ladder of success throughout their career?

One of the most effective solutions to this dilemma is to find a mentor.

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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