Western philosophy as we know it came from one radical mentor mindmeld. Socrates mentored Plato, who went on to mentor Aristotle. These three greats not only had one of the most powerful mentorships ever, but their cumulative effect on each other changed the course of history. Since then, mentoring has given rise to even more trailblazers in and out of textbooks: Ingmar Bergman was Woody Allen’s mentor, while Steve Jobs learned new ways of thinking from Intel’s Andy Grove. And those are just a few examples. You’d be hard-pressed to find a visionary who hasn’t had some help along the way.
Throughout your life, you may be lucky enough to surround yourself with people who care enough to show you their craft. You may even have the opportunity to become one of those people yourself. But what is it that makes for a truly dynamic mentor-mentee relationship? These are the four qualities leadership experts have identified in the mentors that really make a difference in people’s lives:
Has traits you admire
A great mentor is introspective enough to know the traits that have led to their success. These are the qualities that only come from a deep self-awareness and dialogue about why things happen the way they do. In his book, Creativity, Inc., Pixar president Ed Catmull talks about what he learned from Steve Jobs during their relationship. “Steve had a remarkable knack for letting go of things that didn’t work,” Catmull writes. “If you were in an argument with him, and you convinced him that you were right, he would instantly change his mind… His ego didn’t attach to the suggestions he made.” Jobs’ ability to separate himself from his strongly held ideas — a rare and uncommonly cited trait of his — is what Catmull credits for being able to make his own decisions sans ego.
Doesn’t always agree with your view
Growth comes from conflict. A mentor that can dole out constructive feedback is way more helpful than one who only cheers you on. According to Patrick Lencioni, author ofThe Five Dysfunctions of a Team, it’s vital for leaders to listen to conflicting views to gain a better understanding outside their personal biases. Writes Lencioni, “Consensus is horrible. I mean, if everyone really agrees on something… well that’s terrific. But that isn’t how it usually works, and so consensus becomes an attempt to please everyone.” One way to fast-track the learning process is by teaming up with a mentor who can push you further by challenging your views.
Values making connections
A good litmus test for rockstar mentors is to see if they are connectors. According to Malcom Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, there are three kinds of people: Connectors, Salespeople, and Mavens. A good mentor is a Connector, or someone who enacts change by bringing people together. You might be one yourself if your stories are always about the people involved, not just the general idea or scenario. Gladwell has a fun test to see where you fall on the scale. Go down this list of 250 names and see how many people you know with that surname (the lowest score he’s seen is 16, the highest is 108). However, even if you don’t know a ton of folks, just having the drive to help others is what matters. A well-connected mentor will introduce you to experts in your field, recommend potential hires, and open doors for new opportunities. Your success is their success.
It feels right
Asking the wrong person to be your mentor can be just as awkward as stumbling through a middle school dance. If it doesn’t feel natural, that person probably won’t be someone you can be yourself with. As Sheryl Sandberg says, “If someone has to ask the question, the answer is probably no.” Instead, she advises individuals to “excel and you will find a mentor,” as was the case for her and her mentor Larry Summers, former president at Harvard. The best mentor relationships develop organically over time.
You’d be surprised by how many people in your life may be mentor material. The inverse is also true. There are scores of people you could impact by giving them a few hours each month. If you’re looking for a mentor or want to be one yourself, try to identify people in your network who you care about and would be a good fit. Racking your brain and coming up with nothing? Experiment with a service like Everwise, an online matchmaker for both mentors and mentees alike.
A solid mentorship involves more than just a few coffee runs and email threads. It’s a dynamic relationship that intensifies the more you put into it. With a mentor there to show you what the road ahead is like, the future won’t look so abstract. In a way, mentoring is like tuning an instrument — bringing out the the amazing qualities that were within you all along.