5 mentor mistakes to avoid

May 2, 2014, 5:33 PM UTC

Socrates and Plato. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey. Ray Charles and Quincy Jones. Bob Noyce and Steve Jobs.

Who wouldn’t benefit from a wise mentor? The right one can make a huge difference in your career. You know this: Some 96% of executives view mentoring as an important development tool, according to Lois Zachary, author of The Mentor’s Guide: Facilitating Effective Learning Relationships.

“There are lots of benefits to mentoring,” says Zachary. “A mentor can help connect you to other networks and can expose you to different ideas, different people that you otherwise would never have that opportunity for.”

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In your quest to find your own Mr. Miyagi and develop the perfect mentoring relationship, avoid these five common mistakes.

1. Having a mentor just like you

It may be comfortable to develop a relationship with a mentor with a background similar to yours. That’s not the way to grow. Instead, seek out a mentor with a different experience and perspective, one who can help you identify blind spots.

“A lot of mentors of women will be men. A lot of mentors of people of color will be white people because you have to look at who has the power and experience. It’s still going to be a lot of older white men,” says Michael Melcher, an executive coach with the firm Next Step Partners. “Don’t think the only person who should mentor you is somebody who looks exactly like you. It’s too limiting and often those people are way oversubscribed.”

When technology executive Sharon Meers, co-author of Getting to 50/50, was a vice president at Goldman Sachs, the women’s network discovered that all the male vice presidents were playing basketball with the senior leaders. They asked the partners to create a program that would match women with senior men as mentors. A number of women who participated advanced to become managing directors.

“It was amazing,” Meers recalls. “The guys who participated were partners who really cared about advancing women. The women who participated were high potential. You weren’t dealing with performance problems.”

Similarly, your mentors shouldn’t all be former supervisors. Pick people who have exposure to a different business area or even those in a different company or sector of your industry.

2. Asking for general help

A classic mistake in seeking a mentor is to ask a senior executive to lunch and spend the time aimlessly talking, without knowing what kind of help you need. The more specific and targeted your goal, the better.

At first, you may not know where you need to grow or develop, but that can be part of the process. Once you identify areas of weakness, pick mentors who can help you in a specific area, perhaps management, communication, or presentations.

When you do get that specific advice, follow up with your mentor to share the outcome. People like to know that their advice helped. If you end up departing from your mentor’s advice, be honest about that too.

“The mentor’s advice is not always going to be good, but if it’s not they need to understand why, ” Meers says. “The answer can’t be, ‘I never tried.’ ”

3. Wasting time

When you ask someone to give you advice, you owe the courtesy of respecting their time and making the most of it. That means coming to each lunch or coffee meeting with a clear agenda in mind, being efficient in your conversation and following up afterward. Play an active role in the relationship.

“The time is the biggest issue and the commitment. It is a big commitment,” says Roz Alford, principal of ASAP, an IT solutions company. “There has to be accountability on both sides.”

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You should set the agenda for meetings, follow up in between, and define the relationship. “You take your goals in a series of conversations and make them very specific and targeted,” Zachary says. “What you’re really talking about is how you’re going to develop and grow.”

Your mentor doesn’t have all the answers but can help guide you to find them yourself. In other words, don’t just have lunch with someone once a quarter and call her your mentor.

4. Thinking it’s a one-way relationship

One of the most common misconceptions in mentoring is that it’s a transaction or a one-direction relationship. Mentors can learn a lot from the people they advise.

“I feel like I get at least as much as I give,” says Jodi Allen, a marketing and brand operations vice president at Procter & Gamble Co. who enjoys discussing developments in mobile tech and social media with people she mentors. “They give me a huge amount of energy. They’re young and ambitious and so much more skilled than I was at that point in my life.”

5. Forcing the relationship

It’s tempting to rush right out and ask your professional hero to be your mentor. That would be a mistake. Such a relationship has to develop naturally.

First of all, some people hate to be explicitly asked to be a mentor. Get to know someone before you pop the question, if indeed you need to ask outright.

“It has to be such an organic thing that I feel uncomfortable asking,” says Nicole Loftus, CEO of marketing firm Hit Big. She says her mentor relationships generally develop out of lunch meetings or conversations.

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When looking for a mentor, ask your contacts and colleagues for someone with the kind of industry expertise, personal characteristics, or connections that you’re seeking. “You have to go out and be able to say to people, ‘I want to learn x, y, and z and here are my priorities,’ ” says Zachary, “It’s much easier to get a good answer from someone other than saying, ‘I’m looking for a mentor, who do you know?’ ”

Melcher agrees. “You have to cast a wide net,” he says. “Instead of saying, ‘Will you be my mentor?’ you could say, ‘I have really enjoyed meeting you. I’ve learned so much from this conversation. I’d like to reach out to you again in a few months.’ ”

It may help to take the pressure off to realize that you’ll have multiple mentors at different points in your career, perhaps some of them even simultaneously. One person may mentor you about your work-life balance, while another introduces you to important potential customers.

“It’s not just one mentor for life,” Zachary says.