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What to Do When You Need Career Advice

May 1, 2016, 8:00 PM UTC
Photograph by Peter Dazeley via Getty Images

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How do you find a mentor? is written by Joni Klippert, vice president of products at VictorOps.

Navigating the business world takes work. It’s hard for beginners and seasoned veterans alike, as your career evolves. So it’s no surprise, that those who have become the most successful in their field were smart enough to seek out a mentor to help foster their development as a professional. Mentors can be someone who provides counsel, offers feedback on ideas, and sometimes most importantly, just listens. You may get lucky enough to stumble upon a mentor, but in most cases it takes a little more energy.

Learn from those who inspire you
I remember meeting my first significant mentor like it was yesterday. I was just out of college, frantically applying to any and every job. During an interview with one such prospect, I walked into a boardroom and met the most powerful, engaging woman I’d ever encountered in my life. She was passionate, intelligent, and absolutely terrifying. I knew within five minutes of meeting her that I would stop at nothing to land that job and learn as much as possible from this woman. Over the next three years she would teach me everything she knew about negotiating, operating with integrity, caring for employees as though they were family, and ultimately, how to be incredibly productive as a woman in business.

See also: How To Choose a Really Good Mentor

Aiming for the unattainable
Fast forward to business school, and I’d been bit by the startup bug. I wanted to learn everything I could about venture capital, term sheets, entrepreneurial finance, and the like. I’ll never forget sitting in a venture capital boot camp when in walked a local VC who had so much energy and passion for the domain, that he instantly captivated everyone in the room. Reminiscent of Ari Gold from Entourage, he was irreverent, engaging and, well, let’s just say intimidating. I knew this guy could guide me on my journey to becoming a success in the startup world. But how was I going to make this happen? This was an insanely busy man, who likely had a line of students, community members and every ‘wantreprenuer’ banging on his door. Fortunately for me, he maintained a personal brand of service and community building, which helped get my first meeting. But building a relationship is a bit harder, which brings me to my third tip.

Make the relationship a two-way street
There will be mentor engagements that linger over a meal, a glass of wine or coffee — and then there will be those that are more transaction-based. Take what you can get and be prepared. Operate within the communication channels, meeting preferences, and structure that is preferred by your prospective mentor. Arrive with a clear goal or a topic you’d like to better understand; respect their time and figure out how you can help them. If you’re early on in your career, you may be wondering how you can be of help to your mentor. Chances are you have a much smaller network and more limited means. Giving back to my first mentor meant working hard for her in my daily job, but it also meant taking the opportunity to volunteer or chair committees for her philanthropic efforts.

Stop looking for “jobs”
Compelling and powerful people are busy doing interesting and meaningful things — so they can be hard to find. Which may be why I’ve often found my mentors in the context of my career path. I can imagine that it would be difficult to source mentors if you can’t pinpoint your career goals and objectives. If your intent is to be regularly inspired and supported through mentorship, I’d encourage you to stop looking for jobs and start choosing career opportunities that give you access to people you admire and want to learn from.

Cultivate a group of peer mentors
As you grow in your career, it may be best to first focus on developing a network of peer mentors. Think of it as “mentor dating.” Make a list of companies you think are interesting or are doing well, and seek to build a relationship with the person who does your job (or the job you want). Take them to coffee. Learn about how they approach their job; what makes them successful; what unique skills they bring to the position. And it’s okay if it’s not a fit. Thank them for their time and move on. But eventually you’ll build a cadre of functional mentors who have the added benefit of facing similar challenges with you.