Why you need a different mentor at every step in your career

By David Lumb 

When you’re starting out, you need a mentor you can look up to, but later in your career, you’d benefit from getting a fresh perspective.

We’ve been told countless times how important it is to find a mentor to help guide you early in your career. But searching for mentors doesn’t stop after becoming established: There’s immense value in learning from others throughout your career, even if those mentors are younger than you.

Here’s what to look for in a mentor throughout your career.

Finding the right age gap

As tradition goes, mentees will look for older mentors; and likewise, the older someone gets, the more they will consider sharing their expertise as a mentor, says Mike Bergelson, founder of the mentor-matching site Everwise. In the two years since launching, Bergelson found that for best results, you should look for mentors about three to eight years older than you. Mentors in that slightly older range have recently surmounted the obstacles their younger mentees are facing. Mentors older than eight years tend to have trouble relating to their mentees, says Bergelson.

‘There are certain variables that someone looks for in a mentor that change as you get older. For example, when I’m 21 or 22, working my first job out of college, my ideal mentor is 25 or 26 years old, who has been in the workplace for a few years. So age matters as an example of a variable,’ says Bergelson. ‘But there are others, like shared affinity: similar political views, kids of the same age, sports enthusiasm. The nature of who your mentor is almost certainly changes over time.’

It’s slightly more difficult to find mentors who are 25 and 26, because many workers don’t have confidence at that age in their own abilities, says Bergelson. But the other end of the spectrum is also true: as workers get into the power curve of their careers in their 30s and 40s, some think they’re done learning. That’s wrong, says Bergelson, who paraphrases the teachings of Marshall Goldsmith: ‘The skills that got you this promotion will not get you to the next promotion.’ In other words, those workers who continue to learn will outperform their peers. Regularly seeking mentors, then, is a sign of employable fitness.

The case for reverse mentoring

Of course, it’s assumed that a mentor will be older than you, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Bergelson points to a trend called Reverse Mentoring, where older professionals will seek a younger mentor. It’s more than learning what the cool kids are doing these days: Getting a younger person’s perspective will open up the older careerist to the struggles and opportunities that the next generation are experiencing. GM CEO Jack Welch famously forced 500 executives in the company to take on Reverse Mentors back in the early 2000s, leading from the fore by taking on one himself.

‘People who are senior or later in their careers sit atop organizations that are catering towards younger folks, but they don’t understand the first thing about younger folks. Reverse Mentoring can helpfully bridge those gaps and get appreciation for folks who think differently. But it takes a certain type of person to seek that out,’ says Bergelson.

In private, some HR folks have told Bergelson that their companies’ executives are out of touch with the times and could really benefit from a Reverse Mentor. But in some companies, suggesting that an executive leader is out of touch is a major faux pas, and those PR folks would worry that an embarrassed emperor with no clothes could turn around and shoot the messenger.

Challenging assumptions

In the two years since launching Everwise, Bergelson has learned a few things about what works best in a mentorship relationship.

One of the assumptions many people make is that mentoring should be within the organization. Why would you want mentoring from another company? But that’s not true. So long as a mentee isn’t going to a competing company, the mentee can benefit from the outsider perspective.

‘People can learn more added levels of insight when people are in very different contexts. The people skills that these relationships are based on transcend work cultures,’ says Bergelson. ‘But more importantly, the mentees won’t have a fear of retribution. If a mentor is within the mentee’s organization, then almost by definition they’ll be more senior, and the mentee might think twice when talking about their manager.’

It’s also commonly assumed that female mentees would want to connect to female mentors in order to learn how best to navigate male-dominated fields. But Everwise found that the opposite is true: Women benefit from male mentors, especially in learning just how clueless men in male-dominated fields are to the obstacles faced by women.

The old adage that a teacher learns more than the student is very true in mentoring, says Bergelson. This especially happens when they’re exposed to new experiences, like the aforementioned male mentors who have their eyes opened to the female mentee experience and subsequently behave differently in the boardroom.

Know what you want in a mentor—and seek them out

Seeking a mentor is more common in some industries than others. But entrepreneurship practically bakes mentor-seeking into its culture.

‘Among my peer set, the idea of finding a mentorship or mentor is pretty commonplace,’ says Osman Khan, COO and cofounder of art-auction startup Paddle8. ‘As an entrepreneur, you face so many challenges, especially if it’s not your core industry expertise.’

As a startup that handles art and jewellery auctions, Paddle8 sits at a unique intersection of worlds, and Khan found a mentor from both the startup and art worlds. His first mentor has 40 years of experience in the finance world, who Khan can go to for macro challenges and questions that are much more opaque, and will give Khan an unbiased and objective view. But his other mentor has given him perspective into the radically different world of art.

‘The art world has a lot of nuances to how the industry works. It’s one of the last undisrupted creative industries. It’s really insular and the stakeholders are very insider-based,’ says Khan. ‘My mentor in the art world has been in this business for 25 years, has invested in other art companies, understands market trends, and has a deep understanding of industry expertise that I found extremely valuable.’

The Internet has breathed new life into mentor-seeking, but that access has some downsides. Nine or 10 years ago, it was much harder to get a mentor outside of your immediate boss or professor network, but Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn has made it a lot easier to find someone you might have things in common with, says Khan. But that easy access has enabled people to abandon thoughtful choosing of their mentors in favour of a more haphazard approach, slinging requests into the Internet ether and waiting to see who floats up. That’s not only bad form—it’s counterproductive. Mentorships work best as sincere relationships where mentors and mentees are both giving and receiving.

This article first appeared at Fast Company.