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Sunday MBA

Good mentors come in many forms

Sunday MBA provides ideas on running better businesses and succeeding in the modern workplace, this week from the HBR Guide to Getting the Mentoring You Need.

If you’re waiting for a wise, dedicated mentor to recognize your potential and lead you down the yellow brick road to happiness and fortune, expect to be disappointed. To exploit your opportunities to grow and move ahead in work and life, the best bet will always be to take matters into your own hands and seek out the people who can help you.

Before you decide whom to turn to, you’ll have to figure out what kinds of mentors will best meet your needs. There are three distinct types:


The co-mentor: This can be anyone — a peer, a colleague, a friend — who needs you as much as you need him or her. A relationship between equals, co-mentoring is rooted in the desire for skills or knowledge exchange. Try meeting regularly for a working breakfast or lunch, for scheduling video chats on Skype, a medium that’s conducive to hands-on teaching and learning because your computer and files are right there while you’re using it.

Co-mentoring is more short-lived than a top-down mentoring relationship. It dissolves when both parties have achieved their goals.

The remote mentor: This is someone outside your organization who can offer fresh perspectives and objective advice.

Though mentors from your company can be invaluable, certain needs are best served by outside advice. Suppose your unit needs to downsize, and you have to decide which people to keep on staff. If the senior managers you work with are short on ideas, you may want to consult with someone who has orchestrated a successful reorg at another company. Remote mentors can be family members, friends, old college professors — anyone in another company or industry. They can even be strangers.


Look for one or more mentors on the outside to get you up to speed on setting agendas, building teams, delegating, and other senior management skills.

The invisible mentor: This is someone you learn from with little or no direct interaction.

Choreographer and dancer Twyla Tharp knew that George Balanchine, the larger-than-life artistic director of the New York City Ballet, was the person from whom she would learn the most. He didn’t teach open classes, so she couldn’t simply sign up for one. They met only three times, yet he served as her invisible mentor for 20 years. As Tharp once explained: “I mentally parked him in the corner of my studio, and the insistence on thoroughness that I saw in him became my standard.”

A mentor like that doesn’t have a personal relationship with you, but can be crucial to your development. Invisible mentors may be unresponsive or deceased, or even authors of books that speak to you. History is filled with people who turned to books for their mentoring. John F. Kennedy read Winston Churchill; Bill Clinton read Kennedy.

So how can you choose your own invisible mentors? Think about the leaders, thinkers, entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, athletes, and others at the top of their game who move you. Why do they move you? Is it because of their craftsmanship? Their drive to excel? Their creativity? Their integrity? That “why” will shine a light on values and talents that can, by example, help you cultivate.


No matter what type of mentoring relationship, it must have clear boundaries. You can deliberately draw and observe them, or the situation (a firm deadline, for instance) may force them. Either way, you need sharp lines to keep you out of murky personal territory: If you start expecting intimacy from your mentor, for example, or looking at him as the father you never had, you’re headed for trouble and disappointment.

That said, feeling connected is key, whether it’s with a co-mentor, who benefits from the relationship as much as you do; a remote mentor, who interacts with you thoughtfully, but from a distance; or an invisible mentor, who has no idea you exist, but calls out to you all the same.

“Clicking” with someone you look up to empowers and motivates you to do your best work. Sometimes that matters more than expertise.

Reprinted with permission of Harvard Business Review.