Navigating your career and figuring out how to get ahead can be daunting, especially if you're trying to go it alone. No matter how independent you are, you'll get where you want to go faster with a little help — and that help can come in the form of a mentor.
In research from Accountemps staffing firm, 86 percent of executives said having a mentor is important for career development — and yet, only about a quarter of them said they had someone they regularly turn to for advice and guidance. This could be because many professionals simply don't take the initiative to ask for mentorship, the study authors said.
"Very few people tend to seek out mentors in the workplace," said Rick Whitted, author of "Outgrow Your Space at Work: How to Thrive at Work and Build a Successful Career" (Revell, 2016). "This is a big miss, because mentors are managers, leaders or successful co-workers in the organization who know how to succeed."
But corporate employees aren't the only ones who need mentorship. Entrepreneurs can also benefit from the insights of a trusted source, perhaps even more so than can other professionals.
"Mentors can be one of the most powerful weapons for an entrepreneur, by providing guidance, wisdom and connections," said Lourdes Martin-Rosa, an American Express OPEN adviser on government contracting and a mentor for the OPEN Mentorship Institute program. "Every entrepreneur should have a mentor for obtaining the best answers to his or her daily challenges during startup and management."
Although forming a mentor-mentee relationship must be a mutual process, there are some key factors to keep in mind as you're seeking a mentor. Mentoring and career experts offered their answers to questions entrepreneurs may have about choosing a mentor who's right for them. [Perfecting Your Mentoring Relationship]
What does a mentor do?
Whether you're the founder of a brand-new startup or an entrepreneur with a bit of business experience under your belt, you can always benefit from having a mentor.
"A mentor can serve as a sounding board at critical points throughout your career," said Diane Domeyer, executive director of staffing firm The Creative Group. "They can provide guidance on career management you may not be able to get from other sources and an insider's perspective on the business, as well as make introductions to key industry contacts."
Doña Storey, another OPEN Mentorship Institute mentor and American Express OPEN adviser on procurement, noted that mentors can help their mentees identify and avoid business pitfalls, and work through the challenges ahead of them. Martin-Rosa added that a mentor can also save entrepreneurs valuable time and money by helping them craft a road map to success.
What qualities does a good mentor have?
At the most basic level, your mentor should have experience greater than your own and a track record of success in what he or she does. But there are plenty of other qualities the person who is guiding your business decisions should possess. Doug White, career expert and editor of career and management insights website TCG Blog, advised seeking a mentor who has a strong character and traits that are worth emulating.
"Look for mentors who are authentic, empathetic, creative and honest," White told Business News Daily. "You need someone who's caring and invested in your professional growth, but also someone who will speak truth to you.Sometimes you need some constructive criticism or a reality check, while other times you need a high five or pat on the back. A well-chosen mentor can provide all of those things."
A mentor in the same business area as yours may be able to better understand your business's challenges and concerns, but Storey noted that fruitful mentoring relationships don't necessarily have to happen within the same industry. Leadership philosophy may be more important, she said.
"Make sure that the mentor shares a similar value system in leadership and management," Storey said. "Knowing who you are as a leader is critical before entering into a mentoring relationship. Only then can you align yourself with the right guide."
Rick Whitted added that a good mentor will speak up for you at tables where you don't have a seat — HR, the executive board, etc. — because this is where most of the decisions about your career are made.
How do you find one?
When you're looking for a mentor, start by thinking about your career path and narrowing down a few leaders who have your dream job, or whom you admire, said Bill Driscoll, a district president for Accountemps.
"Successful mentoring relationships happen when the mentor and mentee are the right match," Driscoll said. "Reach out to someone you think you are comfortable with, who can be a neutral sounding board, and [who] will also provide great advice."
It is possible that your perfect adviser could find you by chance and offer his or her mentorship, but Domeyer said that being proactive in your search for your mentor (or mentors) is the best approach.
"Try to meet as many experienced professionals as you can," she told Business News Daily. Once you've identified someone, "approach your potential mentor and the initial meeting as you would an interview. Be prepared to explain what you hope to learn from the individual and why you value his or her insights and expertise, as well as what you bring to the table. Don't take this phase lightly — you're laying the groundwork for a relationship that will hopefully last a lifetime."
This article was originally published in 2014 and was updated Feb. 10, 2016.