The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: “How do you find a mentor?" is written by Mary Godwin, VP of Operations at Qumulo.
I find mentors to be like blue eyeshadow: They can be great if used in moderation.
Getting a little life-coaching is one thing, but if your goal is a promotion, you should definitely leverage your boss as a mentor. If your boss doesn't want to be your direct mentor, then see if you can get her/him to recommend someone else. One way or another, though, you need your direct manager to endorse your mentoring program to maximize whatever goal you're trying to achieve.
My perspective comes from experience. At one early point in my career, the manager for whom I was working was, in essence, my mentor. He taught me a lot about the basics of supply chain and operations, and I'd consult him on thorny problems. He'd point me in the right direction or give me encouragement if I needed it, but he never did my job for me. I'd like to think that it was a two-way street in that as I learned, I accomplished a lot for his team. I eventually followed him to another company to take on a director-level role. At that stage, he gave me freedom to develop my skills as a manager, giving light guidance when required. When he moved on to his next position, he recommended me to be his replacement, which was my first VP role.
I'd love to be able to say that I made all of my career advancements on my own, but honestly, I don't know where I would be in my career now without his support early on in my professional life. At some point, we both went in separate directions, as he took on positions where my background wouldn't have been a match for the teams he was leading. But, more importantly, I grew my own experience to the point where I needed a different type of mentor. If you're growing and changing your experience and capabilities, you cannot—and should not—have the same mentor forever.
Over the years, I've also had lots of coaches and "non-boss" quasi-mentors. On one hand, these folks can be helpful as sounding boards or for providing perspective when you may be losing yours. This type of mentor can tell you how he or she handled a particular problem, but the recommended approach may not be suitable to your work environment, your personality, or acceptable to the people who you interact with every day. These mentors are not in a position to help your career in the same way that your direct manager is . I've learned that you can really waste your time if you're using a non-reporting-line mentor as a surrogate for the conversations you should be having and relationship you should be developing with your own manager.
If you can develop an open dialog with your boss regarding not only what you want for your career, but also what you want to contribute to the company, you can develop a partnership where you're learning and accomplishing great things for your company together. You'll do your best work, and your manager will be committed to your success.