The millennials want mentoring. We know this much. Rose Ernst and Tara Wyborny of the Genesis10 G10 Associates Program spoke with us about the issue at length last week. Generations relations expert Lisa Orrell touched on the same issues a week earlier. So the expert consensus is there: young talent desires training, especially in the form of personal mentoring.

This generational urge for mentoring has driven the creation of a new market: charging for networking opportunities. As Anna Davies reports for the New York Post, the rise of social media has made it easier than ever for young talent to reach out to established professionals and ask for career advice. This has led to a massive influx of networking requests for professionals, who have decided to monetize the opportunity, becoming mentors-for-hire, if you will. Services like PivotPlanet connect career newcomers with working professionals — for a price.

On the one hand, these mentor-for-hire services seem to make it easier for young talent to access established professionals. Sure, you have to pay the price, but at least professionals are offering a public service. In the absence of that service, the experts could simply ignore their would-be protégés.

However, can people really benefit from hired-gun mentorship? Do we really want career and life advice from a total stranger — an expert, sure, but a stranger who knows nothing about us?

I’m not alone in my misgivings. In the New York Post article to which I linked above, Davies spoke with Amy Goldwasser, “an editorial consultant and faculty member for the Columbia Publishing Course.” Asked about the practice of networking for a price, Goldwasser responds, “I worry the genuine connection is lost when advice giving becomes a transaction.”

I agree with Goldwasser. The mentor-for-hire is there for the money, not you. This means there’s no real attempt to foster genuine connection. Without genuine connection, a mentor’s advice can never be truly specific to you and your unique situation. It can only be general — and if you want general advice, plenty of people give that away for free on the Internet.

So, What Do You Want in a Mentor?

I’m not just here to dissuade you from paying for a mentor. I also want to help you figure out how you can find a great mentor with whom you can build a strong personal relationship. To do that, we need to figure out what you should look for in a mentor. I’m going to use my own relationship with a woman whom I consider a mentor to illustrate what a good mentoring relationship looks like.

There are a few people in my life who have served as mentors, but I’m going to focus today on a creative writing professor I had as an undergrad. For the sake of her anonymity, we’ll call her Prof. M.

So, without further ado, here are the traits of a good mentoring relationship:

  1. A mentor should know you professionally.

I studied literature and creative writing as an undergrad, with a focus on poetry (who even does that?). Creative writing classes were set up as small workshops, with a student-professor ratio of about 10 to 1. Each week, we’d bring out work, share it with the class, and then discuss the presented work.

These small classes made it easy for Prof. M to get to know me as a poet — what sort of things did I write? What sort of things did I want to write? Where did I want to go with poetry? In short, she knew my professional self, which meant she could guide me in ways that were relevant to my professional life.

2. A mentor should know you personally.

But it’s not enough for a mentor to just know you as a professional — they need to know you as a person. Your personal and professional lives are not separate. They deeply influence one another, and often times they become totally intertwined. The best mentors, then, will be able to help you out when it comes to both the personal and the professional.

Prof. M was one of those mentors. She always encouraged me to stop by her office hours and chat. Sure, we talked a lot about poetry, but we also talked about life. She helped me through a lot of rough times and showed a genuine interest in me as a human being.

3. A mentor should care about you … 

You don’t want a mentor who is in it for the paycheck. You don’t want someone to just sit across the table from you because it’s their job. You want a mentor who talks with you because they like you. They care about you. They want you to succeed.

That was Prof. M. If she were strictly in it for the paycheck, she would have limited her interactions with students to the classroom. But she didn’t. Her office was always open. She reached out via social media, email, and phone calls. She kept up with us and the developments in our lives. She genuinely wanted to know us and help us.

4. … and you should care about your mentor.

The best mentorships are two-way streets — more like friendships than hierarchies. You should care just as much about your mentor as they care about you. You should know them as well as they know you. You should build the kind of relationship where you learn from each other.

I can say with certainty that I care about Prof. M, and I know her fairly well. We still keep up Facebook (though, she’s good at disappearing for long periods of time).

I can only hope I’ve helped her in some way, though I doubt I’ll ever be able to help her grow as much as she’s helped me over the years.

A Final Note

There’s one criteria I didn’t include on the list because, I think, it goes without saying: your mentor should be an expert in their field. They should know what they’re talking about. I’m fairly certain we all know that already. That’s what got us into the paying-for-mentorship mess in the first place: people shelling out cash to talk to the experts.

But an expert mastery of a field is only the most basic of mentor criteria. If you want a mentorship that will really help you grow, you’ll need to build the kind of relationship I talked about above.

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