When it comes to mentors, the more the merrier

May 14, 2015, 5:00 PM UTC
Photograph by Jay Beauvais — Build-A-Bear Workshop

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 Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop.

A few years ago I needed some serious career advice. Traditional mentors aside, I still felt stuck. I then had the opportunity to grab lunch with author, speaker and executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith. He noted that the very beliefs and habits I was crediting with my current level of success may be the exact beliefs and habits that were inhibiting my potential career advancement. I had an “ah-ha” moment that became a catalyst for positive change. During lunch Mr. Goldsmith had “mentored” me. But he was not my mentor in the traditional sense. We didn’t meet regularly. In fact, we haven’t spoken since that day. But, it doesn’t mean his advice was any less relevant than if I had received it from one of my traditional mentors.

I’ve come to realize that finding one or two people to meet all your mentoring needs throughout your career may not be realistic. In fact, given how many times professionals are likely to change roles, companies, even industries, it is increasingly unlikely that you could ever expect a single mentor to offer great advice for your entire career. Perhaps the point Mr. Goldsmith was making to me, aptly captured in the title of his applauded business book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, could also be made for today’s traditional concept of mentors. The mentor that helped you get where you are now may not have the right insights to help you get to the next level.

With that in mind, I believe that it is less important to have a mentor but, instead, to recognize a broader opportunity for mentorship from a variety of people who move in and out of your career as it evolves. Instead of checking a “mentor box,” consider this. If you embrace that it is the rare person who would be either willing or able to give you outstanding advice in all areas of development for your entire career, you are now free to naturally cultivate great and lasting relationships with a number of successful people that you admire. No more pressure to find “the one.” This is something I call “serial mentorship.” Below are some tips to help you identify and optimize this idea of serial mentorship:

  • Don’t feel obligated to label someone as a mentor. In fact, sometimes just asking the question, “Will you be my mentor?” puts a set of expectations or an unspoken formality on the relationship that just isn’t necessary for you to accomplish your goal of learning from other, more seasoned, executives. People generally love to share their experiences and insights, especially accomplished people. Sometimes it’s as easy as asking if you can buy them a cup of coffee–or in my case, lunch–and then just start talking.
  • It is important that your mentors recognize your potential, but they also need to be willing to acknowledge and share insights about behaviors or blind spots that could be creating roadblocks for you. You need realistic cheerleaders who will tell the truth, even if it’s unpleasant (as long as it is constructive). And believe me, if there aren’t some unpleasant insights–they probably aren’t telling you the truth.
  • Finally, they are not there for you to have someone to whine to. Make your time with your mentor constructive. If you are not ready to consider their advice (especially if it’s corrective) or you are talking more than you are listening, re-think your approach.


After years of using the serial mentorship approach, I now have created what I like to call my personal board of mentors. This board is a group of business people that I greatly admire with a wide variety of experiences and skills. I have called upon their expertise and insights in a number of business and personal situations. Frankly, it would be hard to calculate the value this board has provided to me over the course of my career and I am certain I would not have achieved my current level of success without their support and encouragement.

It may not be important for you to have a mentor, but being mentored in some fashion is likely to be rewarding. However you go about it, getting advice and encouragement from credible, admirable, successful people can be an important part of your personal and career development. Whether you find a traditional mentor, a series of people that provide general mentorship or like me, you eventually have a board of mentors, these relationships can cultivate confidence, self-actualization, advocacy and, eventually, even lasting friendship.

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

Are you qualified to be a mentor? by Sarah Watson, chief strategy officer of BBH N.Y.

Is mentoring necessary for career advancement? by Teresa Briggs, vice chairman and west region managing partner at Deloitte.

Do all employees benefit from having a mentor? by Dawn Zier, president and CEO of Nutrisystem.

4 things your boss won’t tell you (but a mentor will) by Penny Herscher CEO of FirstRain.

What qualities make a good (and bad) mentor? by Karen Tegan Padir, president of application development at Progress Software.

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.

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