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How to Know You’ve Found a Great Mentor

Enrique Conterno, president of Lilly DiabetesEnrique Conterno, president of Lilly Diabetes
Enrique Conterno, president of Lilly DiabetesCourtesy of Lilly Diabetes

The Fortune 500 Insider Network is an online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Enrique Conterno, president of Lilly Diabetes, has answered the question: What are three qualities that make a good mentor?

Mentoring has become a staple both inside and outside of the workplace. Many people receive valuable career guidance from their managers and colleagues. Even “reverse mentors” have come into vogue, helping executives understand new trends that are critical for reaching distinct audiences. Mentoring is common because it works.

Early in my career, I would simmer and stew when I disagreed with decisions or strategies, regardless of their overarching significance. If I disagreed with a decision, I said so—and I worked relentlessly to prove my point. One day, while meeting with a long-time company leader whom I regarded as a mentor, I vented about a particular decision that I was certain would not end well.

He gave me advice that I carry with me to this day: “People have their own ideas and their own approaches to work. Sometimes, you need to let them figure out whether their plan is the right one.”

And he was right. The project—regardless of its execution—would not have a significant impact on our business, but the lessons learned by the company and our employees just might. His advice taught me a lasting lesson: Allow space for others to create their own paths forward.

Our mutual trust and personal connection empowered my mentor to consistently give me candid advice. Trust is foundational to any strong relationship—particularly with mentors who sometimes take on the role of a corporate psychologist. You discuss details of your work life that you wouldn’t share with many of your colleagues: your career goals, your frustrations, and your vulnerabilities. Trust is critical to these conversations, but you need a personal connection with your mentor to make it work. Without a common bond, the relationship may become superficial, tedious, and ultimately short-lived. You don’t need to agree on everything. In fact, you shouldn’t. But in my experience, good advice comes from those who can put themselves in your shoes.

Mentees should not only seek out advice—they should give it. A one-way conversation, where one person holds court while the other dutifully listens, limits the opportunity of what a strong mentoring relationship can provide. A strong two-way dialogue can help both people become the best leaders —and best people—that they can be.

Whether you work in a corporate environment, the government, a manufacturing line or a coffeehouse, I place high value on mentoring. We all need a confidant to help us untangle difficult moments (and help celebrate the good times, too). Finding a mentor relationship that embodies these characteristics can generate more satisfaction at work and, oftentimes, in life.