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What qualities make a good (and bad) mentor?

May 8, 2015, 4:30 PM UTC

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: Why is it important to have a mentor? is written by Karen Tegan Padir, president of application development at Progress Software.

Mentors are essential for professional growth and deliver two important resources: experience and relationships. The more of each you acquire, the more valuable you’ll be to your organization. But don’t get tripped-up by the title―or wait for a formal program. Mentorship comes in all forms, and need not be a binding relationship where you shake hands, exchange pins, or commit to a meeting schedule. In fact, some of the most valuable mentors in my career were casual, and if asked, may not even view themselves as such. That’s because mentoring at its core is the solicitation of perspectives, freely given and freely received; it’s an open exchange of ideas that leave both parties better from the encounter. Here’s how:

Why just one?
Too often when people talk about securing a mentor, they do so in the singular tense: mentor. I found that one is not nearly enough. Just as innovation happens when a diverse group of people come together to collaborate, so too with a group of mentors. The combined brain trust will certainly provide a better springboard to success than would a single person–no matter how fabulous they may be. And don’t forget to seek a variety of mentors: if you’re a woman, seek out a man, a woman, people in your department, as well as in other departments or fields. The same rule applies for men. A diverse spectrum of mentors will expose you to a variety of perspectives, rather than being confined to just one. It’s also a matter of self-preservation: who’s to say the one mentor you pick is the best choice for your career.

Stay connected
One of the most important aspects of the workplace is the range of talents and personalities at your disposal. Be sure you make use of them. For instance, I worked remotely for a time, and would intentionally book a variety of one-on-one meetings when I was in the office to catch-up with people I didn’t see every day. Even if there was no “real” reason for the appointment, I always found it an important exercise to sit face-to-face and learn about the projects brewing in their universe. This not only fostered strong relationships with my co-workers, but also helped me branch out beyond my personal objectives to see the bigger picture of activities across the organization. Scheduling meetings with my boss’ peers was especially valuable and provided a better understanding of the challenges our team faced moving forward.

Got your back
Speaking of teams, unless you’re a solo operator working for yourself, you’ll be working as part of a larger team. It’s imperative for you to find an “advocate in the room,” someone to champion your viewpoint when you’re not around to speak for yourself. No one can be everywhere at once, so cultivate relationships with people comfortable pumping the breaks in a crowd and who can likewise fill you in on what transpired after-the-fact. Strong champions are crucial when it comes to advancement. Opportunities in life are limited. Seize them when they come around, especially ones for which you are well qualified. Make it clear you’re ready for a new challenge; that way, those in authority can advocate for your elevation—and feel comfortable doing so.

Seek out dissent
You know that guy (or gal) in the office that you respect but can never agree with? Spend some time with them the next time you have a question about a project. See what they think. It’s all well and good to run ideas by your “yes” crowd (we all have them!), but it takes more than a little courage to seek out people with opposing ideas and ask them to comment on yours. You might find they’re more right than you thought.

Mentoring is a valuable exercise for all professionals, but there is no one right way to do it. Embrace a variety of approaches and strategies, and you’ll be the better for it.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: Why is it important to have a mentor?

Why mentoring is unlike any other professional relationship by Jenni Luke, CEO of Step Up.

Why you don’t need a mentor to be successful by Beth Brooke-Marciniak, Global Vice Chair of Public Policy at Ernst & Young.

What qualities should you look for in a mentor? by Gay Gaddis, CEO and founder of T3.

4 things to consider before choosing a mentor by Camille Preston, founder of AIM Leadership.

The most important quality a mentor should have by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.

Why women are more likely to be mentors by Alyse Nelson, CEO and co-founder of Vital Voices Global Partnership.

3 reasons every employee needs a mentor by Sally Blount, Dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Why this AOL executive chooses her mentors — wisely by Allie Kline, CMO of AOL, Inc.