Help Wanted

People managers want mentors, but many are unsure how to find them.

By Danielle Braff July 12, 2023
Martyna Jasinska, an HR specialist and recruiter with, had a problem. She needed to dismiss an employee, and while she could usually approach these types of situations with empathy, she was struggling this time. So she turned to her mentor.

“A session with my mentor made me stop seeing the case personally and go through the process with this employee on good terms,” Jasinska says. “When I have a conversation with my mentor, I can take a fresh look at the situation and approach it better.”

Jasinska isn’t the only professional to benefit from mentoring. Consultant Richard “Rik” Nemanick attributes the success of his entire career to the advice of his mentors. His first mentor, the vice president of human resources at his first job, convinced him to quit and go to graduate school.

Afterward, Nemanick was inspired to follow in his mentor’s footsteps, which led him to earn a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, teach at the college level and become a mentor himself. Today, he is the principal consultant at Nemanick Leadership Consulting and the author of The Mentor’s Way: Eight Rules for Bringing Out the Best in Others (Routledge, 2016), which details the various functions of a mentor as a role model, motivator, confidant, coach and more.

Nemanick relied on another mentor during graduate school to help him navigate academia. A third mentor—an author—guided him as he wrote his book. “We benefit from mentors at every point in our careers,” Nemanick says. “There is always someone who is ahead of you who can mentor you, and there is always someone behind you who you can mentor.”

A Big Gap

In January, SHRM held 13 online discussions involving groups of people managers that addressed how participants became managers and what their biggest challenges were. One finding was that managers recognize the importance of mentors, but they need help finding them. 

“I can see a mentorship program being really effective,” said one roundtable participant. “I think that of all the things we've discussed, this would be the most helpful for me personally because of what I feel like I’m trying to learn, rather than just broad managerial skills.”

‘There is always someone who is ahead of you who can mentor you, and there is always someone behind you who you can mentor.’          —Rik Nemanick

But despite this professed need for the direction a mentor can provide, there’s still a big gap between the number of people who want mentors and the number of people who have them. In a 2019 survey of 3,000 people by Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois about mentor-mentee relationships, 76 percent of respondents said professional mentors are important, but only 37 percent of respondents said they personally have mentors. Only 56 percent said they’ve ever had a mentor. Respondents with mentors reported being happier in their jobs than those without mentors.

What Makes Someone a Good Mentor?

Sara Madera, founder of Plan Creatively, a career coaching program for working mothers in New York City, says the definition of “mentorship” can be misunderstood. While mentors often want to share their knowledge about how they achieved their success, true mentoring is about supporting someone throughout their unique career trajectory. This can make it difficult to find a mentor who is a good fit, Madera says. As a result, she counsels clients to build a personal “board of advisors,” rather than identifying a single mentor. 

“Depending on a person’s level of experience, this might look like a variety of upper-level support from a variety of companies and roles, or it could be a career coach, a lawyer, a trusted friend or colleague or an old boss who can help you think through any challenges, ideas or opportunities from all angles,” Madera says. She recommends cultivating a sounding board to ensure you’re on the right path. However, Madera adds that if you're lucky enough to find a single mentor who is aligned with your goals and understands your specific career, that one relationship could be career- and life-changing.

Matthew Warzel, president of MJW Careers, a resume-writing, job interview preparation and career coaching firm in Wilmington, N.C., advises people to seek a mentor as soon as they have a clear understanding of their career goals and the direction they want their career to take. This could be during college, right after graduation or later in a career, when people are looking to make a change.

Look for someone who has experience in your field, shares your values and has a personality that resonates with you, Warzel advises. He suggests attending networking events and industry conferences and joining professional associations to find your match. Many employers also offer mentoring programs or have a formal mentorship process in place. 

Warzel recommends that people begin their search for a career mentor by looking within their existing network, including colleagues, professors, fellow alumni and professional associations. Reach out to someone in your field whom you respect, he says, and ask if they’d be willing to mentor you. You can also reach out to people via online communities and forums dedicated to your industry. 

‘You don’t necessarily find mentors. You build meaningful relationships, and mentorships follow.’ —Ximena Hartsock

Ximena Hartsock, co-founder of BuildWithin in Washington, D.C., a company that trains and manages apprentices in the tech field, says that instead of looking for one specific mentor, she seeks out multiple experts in her field who may become effective career coaches for her. For example, Hartsock recently approached a career CEO with questions about how to lead companies for the long term, and she found his advice helpful. Eventually, he became one of her mentors. “You don’t necessarily find mentors,” Hartsock says. “You build meaningful relationships, and mentorships follow.” 

The Olivet Nazarene University survey bears this out: 61 percent of respondents said their mentor relationships developed naturally, while only 14 percent began by asking someone to be their mentor. 

You may also choose to join a mentorship program, some of which can be fee-based. Whether you choose this method should depend on your personal circumstances and the specific program or mentor you’re seeking, Warzel says. Look at the level of support and services the program offers. Do your research to ensure the program is reputable and that you will receive value for the money you invest.

A Lifelong Journey

Regardless of how you find a mentor, a good one should be able to help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, offer feedback on your performance, and provide guidance on how to achieve your career goals, Warzel says. “They can also help you navigate challenging situations, offer perspective on workplace dynamics and provide access to valuable networking opportunities,” he adds. 

Is it possible to have a successful career without a mentor? Sure, says Lynn George, a certified career and leadership coach with Houston-based Lynn George Consulting, but it may be more difficult. Without a mentor, she says, you may struggle to address the areas you need to improve or identify blind spots in your skills or approach. You may also have a longer learning curve, making it more difficult to achieve your goals. And a mentor also usually provides critical access to contacts and resources that can help you advance, George notes.

It’s important to remember that the same person doesn’t have to remain your guide for your entire career, says Darren Shafae, founder of Santa Barbara, Calif.-based ResumeBlaze, a resume-building firm. As you acquire new skills or advance into new areas, it can be helpful to have multiple mentors to provide different perspectives. And when you feel like you’ve reached a saturation point in terms of learning and growth with your mentor, Shafae says, it could be time to seek out a new one. 

Danielle Braff is a freelance writer based in Chicago.


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