Image of straight and curved lines meeting, representing the mentor/mentee relationship

You’ve heard over and over how valuable mentors are as you move through your career. You’ve listened to your colleagues’ testimonials. You’ve watched the TED talks. You’re convinced. But what’s less clear is the role of mentorship at this point in your career. Right now. If you went out to seek a mentor today, would you know what you need from the relationship?

Maybe, maybe not. And you’re not alone.

Just as your goals evolve throughout your career, what you need out of a mentoring relationship changes. Let’s examine who you should be talking to (and why) through the lens of five common career milestones.

Wait: are mentors and careers coaches the same thing?

Glad you asked! No: they’re not the same. Coaching focuses on changing specific behaviors or strengthening specific skills in order to meet short-term career goals. A coach may even observe you at work to identify areas for improvement and see how you’re progressing. Mentorship is a high-level, open-ended relationship. The mentor is a source of wisdom and support with an eye toward long-term career development.

The role of mentorship early in your career

Congratulations! You’ve landed your first “grown-up” job. You’re fired up to become a star player, and your goals are on short time horizons (maybe six to 18 months). With so many ways you could shine, the world is your oyster. “In the beginning, when you have more time and energy, it’s good to experiment with saying ‘yes’ to opportunities as a default,” says Tim Ferriss, author of “Tribe of Mentors”.

At this stage, mentorship is about helping you through the day-to-day hurdles as you explore and improve. A mentor can also help you recognize when you took on something that, turns out, isn’t serving you. Look for someone who has been in your job role or a similar role. You’ll probably find them inside your company or through your social circle.

What to discuss with your mentor right now

  • Aspects of your role that are challenging and ways to improve in these areas
  • How to lean into aspects of your role you enjoy and are strong in
  • Various career paths and options for people in your role

The role of mentorship when you’re ready to shift your career into high gear

You know you’re ready to focus on moving up the ladder when you like your field and feel a sense of purpose about your work, but are starting to get bored in your current role. You know the general direction you’re headed and are keeping your ear to the ground, listening for projects that will stretch and grow your skills. What you need is someone to help you reach those two- to five-year career goals.

Your ideal mentor is in your target role now (or has been in the past), and they have a record of stepping out of their comfort zone – because that’s exactly what you’re about to do. Beware of mentors that prescribe a step-by-step plan, however. “Anyone who says ‘You should do this exactly the way I did’ should be viewed with suspicion,” says Ferriss. Instead, look for someone who will ask pointed questions that help you stay on course.

This is a good time to look for mentors outside your company who bring in a fresh perspective. You’ll find them at Meetup sessions, networking events, and in relevant LinkedIn groups.

What to discuss with your mentor right now

  • Medium-term career goals and ways to get there
  • How to get past common hurdles along the way
  • Strengths you can build up even further and weak areas you need to shore up

The role of mentorship when life throws you for a loop

At some point in our careers, we all get the proverbial wind knocked out of us. Sometimes it comes in the form of a devastating failure. Other times, we throw ourselves a curveball by deciding to start a family or move to another country. Either way, you’re engaged in a lot of self-reflection right now as you balance (and re-balance) your priorities.

“It’s in these times of [adversity] that we really find out about ourselves – about our character and how we want to grow,” says Patrick Boland, a leadership consultant. He advocates finding a mentor who will meet you where you’re at and help you reframe the situation in a way that highlights the opportunities it brings while still acknowledging the challenges. Your ideal mentor at this point is someone who is supportive, but candid enough to hold you accountable to your goals.

What to discuss with your mentor right now

  • Your feelings about whatever change is happening (Seriously. This is no time to ignore your emotional health.)
  • How you plan to move forward from where you are and where you hope to be when you emerge from this period of transition

The role of mentorship when considering a career change

Few career paths look like a straight line these days. For many people, moving to a new industry or a dramatically different job role is a heavy decision. You might feel discouraged about your industry in general or feel like your idealistic high school self would be disappointed with the career choices you’ve made up to now.

Whatever the reasons, you need a good listener. Like, an especially good listener. Ideally, someone who already knows you on a personal level and can call you out when you’re not being honest with yourself. Their job isn’t to make the decision for you, but to guide you through the decision-making process. “The type of mentors who tend to be the most helpful are the ones who don’t necessarily give you an answer,” Ferriss reminds us. “They simply give you a better way of finding the answer.”

What to discuss with your mentor right now

  • Your reasons for considering a career change
  • The types of industries or roles that speak to your values or sense of purpose
  • Your goals around the change and how you’ll know whether you made the right choice

The role of mentorship when you’re at the top of your game

Ahh… you’ve made it to the top. Whether that means you sit in the corner office, or simply occupy a role that fills you with a sense of purpose and accomplishment, you’re starting to think about the legacy you’ll leave behind. But this is no time to lose touch with those on the lower rungs of the ladder.

This is the point in your career when younger professionals are reaching out to you for mentorship – oh, how the tables have turned! If you embrace this opportunity, you can not only help shape the next generation of workers, but further your own career as well.

In her TED talk, Millennial and hospital administrator Lauren Hoebee reminds us that those at the top can learn a lot from those just starting out. “Seasoned business professionals benefit from being challenged on the ‘why’, or gaining new insights on working smarter not harder,” she says. “Or just being trained on the new interfaces that Millennials are growing up with.” So in a sense, your ideal mentor at this stage is actually your mentee. Hashtag #win-win.

What to discuss with your mentor/mentee right now

  • Establishing a sustainable work-life balance
  • Relevant tools and trends emerging in your industry

Asking for help increases your chances of success

There’s no need to feel sheepish about approaching someone you don’t have a relationship with yet. People love to be helpful and will share their expertise with just about anyone who asks. But walking up cold and asking “Will you be my mentor?” outright is awkward for both parties. Instead, invest time building up relationships to a point where you feel comfortable asking for advice once in a while. (“Occasionally” being the key idea here. If you find yourself reaching out more than every couple of months, it might be time to hire a career coach.)

Don’t feel like you need to start from scratch with a new mentor every time your career enters a new stage. A single person may serve as an effective mentor for many years, through many twists and turns. If you’re lucky enough to have a mentor like that, be sure to check in with them at times of change. A note or small gift to express your gratitude won’t go amiss, either.

A mentoring relationship doesn’t guarantee career success, but successful people do tend to engage in them. In research Atlassian conducted around team performance and morale, we found that having an informal mentor to reach out to is highly correlated with better performance and improved well-being. Coincidence? Probably not.

The life-long learner’s guide to mentorship