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5 things to know before becoming a mentor

May 23, 2015, 3:00 PM UTC
Photograph by Terry Lorant

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 Debby Hopkins, CEO at Citi Ventures.

One of the most valuable and fulfilling aspects of my career has been mentoring others and being mentored. It’s something I strongly encourage on both sides of the professional equation for many reasons, and it can be especially valuable at early stages of innovation and discovery. In order to make a lasting connection when seeking a mentor, here are some important things to keep in mind:

It doesn’t happen over night
Like any relationship, mentorships grow and develop over time. Often, people talk about being assigned a mentor or asking someone to be their mentor. Although it’s fantastic when mentors are introduced through formal programs, it’s important to keep in mind that a mentorship is an affinity between two people–which often happens organically.

Be optimistic
My best mentors have come from the most unexpected places and at unexpected times during my career. Be receptive to advice and insights that might initially surprise you. You may discover a mentor in the form of a client, a former colleague, or co-worker from a different department within your company. An unanticipated perspective may provide insight that you never realized you needed.

Trust each other
A strong mentor knows exactly what makes you tick. This means a deep understanding of your strengths, weaknesses, and habits. Once you’ve established a trusting relationship, be sure to share your goals and aspirations. Engage and listen to their suggestionsthey will help you maintain your authenticity.

It’s a two-way street
With any relationship, it’s critical to balance the give and take. As a mentee, you want to invest in your mentor as well. Remember to respect his or her time, ask thought-provoking questions, and share interesting learnings. You will only get as much out of the relationship as you put in it.

Be proactive
Mentors are only beneficial if you utilize them effectively, like when you’re at a crossroads in your career. And although sometimes the right counsel is hard to hear–your mentor may tell you to stick out a difficult job or manager–it’s in your best interest to take their advice.

I’ll admit, there have been times I’ve avoided my mentors when I had to make a tough decision. I could anticipate exactly what their advice was going to be and it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. But anticipating their response is ultimately what drove me to push myself harder, and in the end, I heeded the advice that I never initially sought. As your mentor relationship grows, hearing his or her voice in your head–almost like a second conscience–will help you learn from your mistakes.

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

Here’s one reason why you don’t need a mentor by Shiza Shahid, co-founder and ambassador of Malala Fund.

The do’s and don’ts of an effective mentor by Shannon Schuyler, leader of corporate responsibility at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Why you’re never too old to have a mentor by Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, national managing partner of corporate responsibility at KPMG.

How men can step up and help women get ahead at workby Gloria Cordes Larson, president of Bentley University.

When it comes to mentors, the more the merrier by Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop.

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 relationshipby 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.