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Choosing the right mentor

My simple 3 items list for selecting the right mentor

I mentored 60+ people in the past five years. I also was lucky to have great mentors in my career. From all that experience, I know that choosing the right mentor doesn't have to be difficult. It's easy if you know what to look for. 

So, I want to share with you the 3 primary skills you should look for when choosing a mentor.

I've boiled it down to 3 topics because there are a lot of skills or qualities that mentors can have and that can mislead you. Just google "what makes a great mentor" and from the first posts, you can make a solid list of thirty skills. So, in this blog post, I want to help you understand the most important qualities to look for in a mentor.

Without further ado, here is my top 3 list:

  • 1. Competence
  • 2. Chemistry
  • 3. Being able to model what you want to be

The right degree of competence

Having a competent mentor is the place to start. But what does competence mean, and how can you know?

I am a big fan of the Dreyfus model. It's a model of skill acquisition that I use a lot. I helped more than a hundred people assess their skills with it. The model states that a student progresses through five stages in acquiring a skill: novice, competence, proficiency, expertise, and mastery.

The scale has five stages, but it's not the classical five-step distribution.

Here is how a classical five-step distribution works. When giving a three out of five rating to a restaurant, I mean that the restaurant was average, and I would probably not return to that place.

The Dreyfus model is quite different. Rating a skill a three out of five (or proficient) means you are very good at that skill. You have great knowledge and experience. So if three is very good, what comes next?

Four out of five means expertise. For the Dreyfus model, it means you are proficient and also recognized at a regional level. What does that mean? In short, you are known outside of your work context; you are visible and recognized outside of your team or company.

Five means mastery. You are not only proficient but known internationally.

Now, stage two, competence, is where most professionals are. If you are at this level, you have good results but need help when facing tough challenges.

So now that you know the model, where should your mentor be?

My advice?

Aim high, a mentor on the fourth level (expert) can help you a lot. Interacting with someone at this level will feel extraordinary. Mentors at this stage can handle the toughest of challenges, and to reach regional-level visibility, they also have impressive social skills.

Can you figure out if your mentor is at the fourth level on your discovery call? Yes. You do that by asking these questions:

  • Can they do the job?
  • Can they handle the toughest of challenges?
  • Are they known for their skills outside their workplace?

Let's take a deeper look at these questions.

Can they do the job?

That's the easiest to answer. All you have to do is look at their experience and the roles they've held. How long are they doing it? For what companies did they work? For how long?

Can they handle the toughest of challenges?

To answer this question, ask them directly what are some of the toughest challenges they solved in this role. Ask questions like: 

  • How did you do it? 
  • What feedback did they get afterward? 

The trick here is to judge this point for yourself: are these tough or fairly standard challenges?

Are they known for their skills outside their workplace?

For this last question, evaluate if they are contributing outside of their workplace. Are they blogging? Are they teaching or training others? Are they invited to speak at conferences? Are they contributing in a significant way to a larger community?

If you answer yes to all these questions, then there is a good chance your mentor is on that fourth level.

Aim for great chemistry

While having the right skills is a must, it won't help much if there is no chemistry between you two. Chemistry will improve over time, but you will probably know if you are a good fit during the first two sessions.

What do I mean by chemistry? The feeling that there is a click, that you like spending that time together, that things are going well, and that you are both alike on some points (like energy, or values) but also different in others, and from this difference, you can learn a lot of new things.

My advice?

Look for chemistry but also be bold, don't try to pick someone that is too much like you. Search for someone that can take you out of your comfort zone.

Being able to model what you want to be

Mentoring should be more than just transferring know-how. More than learning new things. True mentoring happens when the mentee wants to be a little like their mentor. And the mentor understands that and models the behaviors the mentee would like to have. This is powerful because it gives the mentee the energy to want more for themselves. And energy and motivation are key in a mentor-mentee relationship. When a mentor models the behaviors you want to have you will feel inspired to try them yourself. This is how mentoring is different than simple teaching.

My advice?

Ask yourself this after 2-4 sessions.

  • Do I want to be a little more like my mentor?
  • Do I leave our sessions with the energy to aim for more?
  • Do I feel that because I work with this person, I can do more than I was able to do on my own?

If you answer yes to all these questions, then there is a good chance you have a mentor that inspires you.

That's it. Those are my top 3 items.

I hope you liked reading this post. I am curious to know - what is your top 3?

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