Regardless of what stage of your career you’re in, private practice can get lonely. And that’s especially the case for new practitioners. Everyone needs advice or a little motivation sometimes, and if you don’t already have a community, that support can be hard to find. In these situations, finding someone who can offer you some guidance can feel like a port in the storm.
Not every port will be a good one, though. When you’re choosing a mentor, it’s important to consider who will be a good fit for you—and when it’s time to find someone new.
What Makes a Good Mentor?
Although it can be difficult to come by, a great mentor isn’t impossible to find. It’ll be important to have an idea of what an ideal mentor looks like for you, but there are a couple universal qualities to look for.
They’re invested in all areas of your life, not just your job. An effective mentor will recognize that no matter how much you love your job, you’re a lot more than just your profession. You should feel comfortable sharing personal milestones alongside your professional ones, and your mentor should be genuinely invested in your holistic growth—not just your career ambitions.
Their goals align with yours. Right from the start of your relationship, the two of you should discuss what your expectations are and what goals you’d like to meet during your time together. You and your mentor should be in lockstep when it comes to your goals. Maintain regular check-ins to make sure you’re on track to fulfilling the goals you’ve laid out.
They empower you to reach your goals. No matter how much you may love working with your mentor, the idea is that you’ll eventually feel confident enough to graduate—so to speak—and move on to the next phase of your career. A good mentor won’t give you all the answers, but they can provide the support and expertise to help you solve problems and make progress on your own.
Try this quick mentor evaluation. Do you feel like they share your same values? Do you feel energized when you leave a meeting? Watch for gaps, and use those to help you decide if your mentor is truly the right fit for you.
Common Pitfalls of Choosing a Mentor
Many people, especially early in their careers, don’t have a lot of experience choosing a mentor. If that’s the case, it can be easy to jump into a relationship that may not be right for you. Take your time, and be mindful of these common mistakes.
Trying to force a relationship. Effective mentoring happens organically. That doesn’t mean you necessarily need to have known them for years, but some established history can make for a stronger jumping-off point. If you approach someone you don’t know very well, it can take a while to build up a working relationship and adapt to each other’s needs and strengths.
Not being open-minded. If you have a preconceived notion of the kind of person you think a mentor should be, now’s the time to drop it. You should have basic guidelines for your search—like values or a cultural background you want to share. But you should also view new relationships with an open mind. You may find that the best person to mentor you is younger than you expected, or a man when you pictured a woman.
Assuming a “good mentor” is the same for everyone. It’s a personal process picking a mentor. Everyone’s different, so a relationship that was working for your friend or your colleague may not have the same benefits for you. If you take your time picking someone or build on an already existing relationship, you’ll have a better chance of success.
Think back to when you first approached your mentor. Did you rush into your relationship, or pick someone purely based on one person’s opinion? Be honest in your recap.
What to Watch Out For
A mentoring relationship is really just human connection at its core, and you should treat it like one. If your gut is telling you something’s off, listen to it. It may be time to move on, especially if you’re noticing any of these red flags.
They don’t own their past mistakes. Mistakes don’t automatically disqualify someone from being a good mentor. Actually, a lot of the best lessons are learned through failure. If they don’t take ownership for their mistakes though—or don’t offer any evidence that they learned from them—they may not be best suited for a mentorship role.
They don’t realize their limitations. There’ll be certain aspects of your career that your mentor may not be able to advise on. Nobody knows everything, and to claim otherwise is just untrue. A good mentor will be able to recognize when they’re out of their depth, and feel comfortable saying, “I don’t know.” They should be able to set aside their own ego, so they can be a reliable resource for you.
They don’t invite—or accept—feedback. Although a successful mentoring relationship will offer something to both you and your mentor, ultimately the role of your mentor is to help you. Your mentor should regularly be checking in with you and seeking feedback to make sure you feel like your needs are being met. And if they don’t seek out that feedback, they should still be open to hearing it if you bring it up yourself.
Take a minute to reflect on your time with your mentor. Are you seeing a lot of these red flags? Do you feel like you’re not making the progress you want to make? If your mentor isn’t helping you grow, it may be time to find a new one.
How to Break Up with Your Mentor
Like in any relationship, honesty is essential. If you know that you’re done working with your mentor, you need to let them know sooner rather than later. Prolonging your exit conversation doesn’t serve either one of you.
Even if things aren’t going particularly well between you, to leave without any warning could reflect poorly on you. Maintain a professional reputation in your field, regardless of how you may feel about your mentor. Nobody likes a breakup, and speaking the truth to an authority figure can be difficult. If you feel especially nervous, prepare what you’re going to say beforehand. Practice the conversation with someone you trust. Here are a couple lines you can use.
I don’t feel like our schedules are compatible, and I’m looking for someone who can accommodate more face-to-face meetings with me.
I don’t feel like we communicate in the same way, and I need to find someone I can speak freely with.
I need to work with someone who better understands my background/culture/family situation.
I’m moving my career in a new direction, and I feel like I need a different perspective in this next stage of my career.
Hopefully, your mentor will take your announcement in stride and wish you well in future endeavors. No matter how much you may dread having the breakup conversation, maintaining a relationship that doesn’t nurture you would be worse. Your decision to stay with a mentor—or not, as the case may be—should solely be based on what helps you be the best practitioner possible.
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