7 Surprising Traits Your Mentor Should Have


Mentors matter.


Perhaps it was the English teacher who pushed you to work harder.  Perhaps it was the coach who believed in your dribble. Or perhaps it was the pottery instructor who led you to a spiraling career in ceramics. Mentors shape our future.


A number of studies indicate that individuals who received high-levels of mentorship are paid more, promoted more often, and are more positive about their careers than those without mentoring.  (They also have silkier hair. Research pending.)


Even more, these effects were larger for college students. As the same study noted,  students make a number of lifetime decisions. They choose a focus of study, a selection of friends, and a first job after graduation. Guidance, as a result, has a larger effect than at any other time in life.


But, “mentorship” can both be positive or negative. Individuals with strong mentors have better psychological, social, and career success than their peers. Students with poor mentorship, on the other hand, often did worse.


So, what makes a good mentor?


Recently, Lillian Eby from the University of Georgia, did a meta-analysis of 173 studies about mentorship. She analyzed what factors helped partnerships last long-term and what traits were flags of a bad mentor.


It’s time to think smarter about finding a mentor. Here are seven traits to look for in your next mentor.


1. Is similar to you  

Of all of the variables analyzed, deep-level similarities between the mentor and mentee was the strongest predictor of psychological support, practical support, and relationship quality. For reference, psychological support relates to how much belonging a mentee feels in an organization. Practical support involves the improving of skills, networking, and the assignment of difficult tasks. Finally, relationship quality is the strength of the bond between the  two individuals.

In all of the studies, similarities of attitudes, personality, and morals predicted mentor-mentee success more than factors like mentor prominence, similarity of fields, or  formality of the relationship. Mentors want to help students that seem similar to them. As a result, they put in more time, more effort, and take larger risks for their success. Students should take notice. When looking for a mentor, think first about someone you relate to deeply. No extent of power, connections, or academic similarity can replace that fundamental trait.



2. Is any race or gender

Before you look for a mentor exactly like you, let’s add one caveat. Though similarities of values are important, surface level similarities (like race or gender) have little effect on mentorship quality. Students are drawn to mentors who are similar to them. However, it is difficult to see beyond physical similarities without some amount of interaction. The take away is that a person's race or gender should not influence your mentor selection. When looking for mentorship, proactively reach out to mentors who are physically different. If you have similar personalities, your relationship is on path to last long-term.


3. Enjoys helping others

In the recent book “Give and Take”, Wharton Professor Adam Grant categorizes individuals by their style of reciprocity. “Takers", as the name indicates, are those who see others as a means to an end. “Matchers” try to balance the amount they give and receive to others. Finally, “givers” are those who are inclined to help others without immediate thought towards their own interest.  As Adam Grant explains in his book, “givers” tend to add value to everyone in their network. For you, try to learn the style of giving of each prospective mentor. Ask around. If you’re mentor is known for their generosity, then they are someone you should seek out (and someone you can model yourself after). If they are known for taking, it’s time to move on to someone else.


4. Works in your field

If you’re goal for mentorship is “practical” (i.e. advancement, learning, etc.) then you should seek someone with a similar background.  As Eby remarked in her analysis,


    “Mentors who are similar to their protégés in terms of educational back-ground, departmental affiliation, or functional area may be better able to provide appropriate technical guidance, help the protégé engage in networking activities, and recommend the protégé for learning opportunities,”


Finding a mentor in your field makes it easier for them to give practical advice. The takeaway? Look for mentors in fields where you see your self growing.



5. Can meet regularly

As you might suspect, meeting regularly with your mentor creates a stronger relationship. (Ragins, 2010). However recognizing the importance of meeting often, and using this information are two different things. For one, this indicates that when you first speak with a mentor you should try to find a regular time to meet. Furthermore, the research also implies that choosing the “most busy” person probably isn’t the best choice. If you’re looking for emotional support (as well as support on making difficult decisions) you need someone who can commit. Unless, of course, you’re only looking for career related benefits, in which case that person …


6. Is the CEO (or close enough)

Skip the boss (or even your boss’s boss). As Sylvia Hewlett of the Center for Talent Innovation argues, there is a big difference between a “mentor” (someone who gives you advice) and a sponsor (someone who advocates for you at higher levels). As Sylvia Hewlett said to Forbes,

     “If mentors help define the dream, sponsors are the dream-enablers. Sponsors deliver: They make you visible to leaders within the company — and to top people outside as well. They connect you to career opportunities and provide air cover when you encounter trouble. When it comes to opening doors, they don’t stop with one promotion: They’ll see you to the threshold of power.” 

Reach out to the top of your organization. Whether that is the department head or the dean of the college, having a sponsor gives you access to conversations and opportunities you otherwise couldn’t enter.


7. Isn’t your academic advisor

There are two types of mentoring people enter. The first, “formal mentoring”, often involves a third party that pairs the two people (think academic advisor). The other, “informal mentoring”, is mentoring that comes naturally out of a relationship (think favorite teacher). A number of the studies Eby analyzed showed that informal mentoring lasts longer, involves more frequent interaction, and creates a stronger psychological bond. As the authors note, informal mentorship often occurs because of an affinity between the mentor and the mentee. Formal relationships, on the other hand, often create a social boundary. As a result, psychological and social support diminishes. Though these effects are small, they should push us to look beyond structured guidance when looking for mentors.


Ultimately, the perfect mentor is not one you find but one that you create. Even if you meet a person with all seven of these traits, you need to be proactive, disciplined, and grateful for their help. We all need great mentors. So, when you're looking for that mentor - good luck. If you heed the findings of these studies, you’ll be one step closer to making your perfect mentor.


Also that silky smooth hair?


It’s coming.