05/05/2013 11:15 EDT | Updated 07/04/2013 05:12 EDT

Stop Searching For a Mentor and Get to Work


Much is written these days about the importance of finding a mentor, based on the premise that once a mentorship is in place, your career will just take off.

But how easy is it to find a mentor? Do you just go up and ask someone "will you be my mentor?" I don't think so. In fact, I question how effective that whole strategy is.

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg observes that we've got it all wrong. The common belief, she says is that if you get a mentor, you will excel, whereas she argues that instead it should be "excel and you'll get a mentor."

Certainly when I reflect back on my own career, no one person leaps out as officially being my mentor. I did have a manager who recognized my potential long before I did, and she would give me stretch assignments, but would I consider her a mentor? Probably not; more a gifted manager.

Part of it is because of the mental picture we tend to have of what a mentor does -- ever present, listening to our tales of woe and prodding us in the right direction; opening doors for us, and giving us a gentle kick when we need it. To me that sounds more like an influential friend.

Certainly, Sandberg acknowledges that she tends to select people based on their performance and potential, and they may well become friends, but the foundation is professional. She also looks for people who are respectful of her time.

In her recent blog, Carol Roth explains the concept of five-minute mentors, where you learn from whomever you can, whenever you can, in combination with taking charge of your own destiny. In other words, be your own mentor.

I have participated in a couple of formal mentoring programs as a mentor and I have to say I am not so sure I measured up. In one instance language was a real barrier; my mentee had limited English, which certainly made me pause and rethink how I explained something, but I doubt I was much help to her. Having a mentor who spoke her language might have served her better.

In the other instance, I know I helped, but not perhaps in the way that the mentee initially hoped for or wanted. But then again, sometimes we come into people's lives for a reason, and at that point in her business, she needed a confidence boost, not so much someone to guide her through the nuances of taking a business globally.

Like Sandberg, I personally prefer to take people under my wing when I see they have real potential to soar. If I can help connect them to the right people, I will. Or perhaps act as a sounding board or cheerleader as they work through building their business and their life.

My time is limited and I find the more formal programs set up such high expectations on the part of both mentee and mentor. Plus as with any relationship, there has to be some chemistry. You need to like and respect each other. You need to enjoy spending time together. When you are "matched" by someone else that element is not always there.

No, I think the best mentoring relationships happen organically, where you click and connect with someone else, and as a result want to help them grow, personally and professionally. And let's face it, it's a two-way street, because you learn too.

11 Quotes From Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In"