Finding a mentor

3 years ago by

Written by Sarah Ritchie
The most successful agency people are those who care about developing their career, and who want to become the best possible version of themselves. One way to achieve this goal is by asking for professional guidance from others.

There will be a stable-full of people whom you can talk with over the course of your career — your colleagues, managers, family, friends, online contacts, paid business advisors, and — if you are intentional about it — business mentors.

The input from a mentor would be complementary to your agency training. On-the-job training teaches you practical skills, while a mentor can offer coaching and counselling for the more subjective aspects of your career (handling criticism, planning your pathway, dealing with difficult clients or colleagues, etc.). Being either a mentee or a mentor involves a serious time and emotional commitment, but can be worthwhile if you find a good match.

What does a mentor do?

A mentor is a person who:

  • Takes an active interest in you and your career.
  • Listens to you.
  • Acts as a sounding-board.
  • Can assess your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Provides an outsider’s perspective.
  • Gives you honest and transparent advice.
  • Allows you to benefit from their own experiences.
  • Encourages and supports.
  • Is a voice of reason if you need it.
  • Helps to keep you from veering off an agreed-to career track.

How to find a mentor

If you are very fortunate, someone you know may decide to take you under their wing and help to navigate your career. At other times you will need to choose someone for the role.

To begin with, you need to know what you want from a mentor before you start the search. You need to figure out what your goals, desires, dreams and aspirations are, and then work out what type of person can help you get there.

He or she needs to be someone whom you admire. They may be someone you know well through work or someone you have met along your professional journey, and – ideally – they will be far ahead of you in your role and doing things in a way that you would like to emulate.

Ideally, your mentor will already know your potential because they have seen you in action. They will know how you think, act, communicate and contribute, and they will have to believe in you already. They also have to be confident that you will put to use all of their input and feedback (otherwise why would they help you?).

It may also be possible to enter into a formal mentor arrangement through an established business mentor programme run through a local business association or an online organisation, though the best mentors are usually the inspiring people you know already.

How much input does a mentor have?

A mentor is not someone you will call every day; nor is their number the hotline you dial as soon as you have a problem at work. Rather, a mentor-mentee relationship can be informal (meeting sporadically for a chat), or formal (meeting on a periodic basis to talk goals, issues and gain valuable life-input).

The mentorship may not even evolve into a sit-down-for-coffee ‘relationship’. Your mentor may be someone who will simply respond to the odd question, or send you a quick email now and then. Sometimes just knowing that someone is there when you need them is enough.

Do you need to pay your mentor?

Your mentor is not (usually) a ‘business advisor’. The relationship with a business advisor is a transactional one (a payment given for services rendered). A mentor gives their time and advice freely because they care about you, and payment will come when they see you excel and grow in your career. However, if you meet with your mentor over a meal or drink, you could show your appreciation by paying for them; and giving a thank-you gift (book, a bottle of wine, a thank you note, etc.) wouldn’t hurt either.

Is a mentor a counsellor?

Although your mentor may offer counsel, they should not be used as a counsellor; if you tried to use them as such, you might find your relationship is short-lived.

How many mentors should you have?

There is no rule stipulating you should only have one mentor. You may find that you’ll have mentors that cover various facets of your career, or different mentors at different stages of your life. You may go through periods of time when you have no mentor or external counsel at all.

Should your mentor be an agency person?

They can have a creative or agency background, but it’s not necessary. Talking with someone who understands the demands of working in a studio or agency is a bonus, however talking with someone from a different industry can give you a fresh perspective and push you outside of your comfort zone.

It may depend on where you are at in your career; if you are just starting out, you may want to receive input and support from someone who has already been-there-and-done-that. You can always have both types of people in your life, as they are never mutually exclusive.

How to ask someone to be your mentor

If you are very fortunate, and someone naturally assumes a mentor role for you, then you won’t even need to ask at all. However, if you do need to ask, then just ask — they will likely be extremely flattered that you chose them!

Everyone (generally) should be familiar with the concept of mentoring. Even so, you will need to clarify what your expectations are of the arrangement (e.g. informal/formal, meeting times, input level, what you want to achieve, etc.), and ask your mentor if they are willing to give you the level of support that you want.

Respecting the privilege

People mentor others because they enjoy having input into another person’s life and watching them flourish. Mentors are also busy people with lives and careers of their own, so it’s important to respect the fact that they are giving you their time, expertise and advice for free.

Be mindful about how often you request to meet with your mentor and always try to arrange a time that suits their schedule — they can guide you as to what they think is a reasonable frequency for your meetings.

People can usually meet for up to one hour comfortably, although even one hour is a long time to expect someone to be solely focused on you, so it’s good to keep bouncing questions back about their life as well. The more you get to know each other, the more fulfilling your mentor-mentee relationship will be (for both sides).

Assess how it’s going

Mentoring is only worthwhile if you see good fruit from the relationship. If you are feeling challenged and out of your comfort zone, then the process is probably working, but if you are feeling no or little benefit, then you could both put your time to better use.

If the relationship reaches a natural conclusion, it’s fine to end it, and if you feel confident that you’ve improved enough to go on without your meetings, then just say so.

Having a mentor says that you are open to listening to the counsel of others and that you are focused on building and strengthening your career. You may or may not agree with everything you hear, and that is perfectly fine, but at least you will gain a wider perspective which will open up a world of possibility that you never knew existed.

Sarah Ritchie has been in the design and agency world for 25 years. Originally a graphic designer, Sarah has also worked as a design teacher, agency account manager, and now enjoys a wonderful life in recruitment for agencies. Sarah is also the Founder of AM-Insider — a website full of tips, tricks and resources to build agency account management superstars!


Image thanks to on unsplash


Up Next...

How Do We Encourage Collaboration?

A short while ago, Sam Allan from Onfire Design initiated ‘Battle of the Birken’ — a bowls competition between Birkenhead-based studios Onfire Design, Marx Design, Inhouse Design, PHD3 and Forever After. Sam says, “I organised the event to get together the local design community — it’s ok to have friendly rivalry in business, and is a…

More from 'Graphic Design'...

DA Conversations Podcast with Grant Alexander, September 2017

Welcome to Design Assembly Conversations. In this series we talk to New Zealand graphic designers, hear their stories, and celebrate their work. In this episode I spoke to Grant Alexander. Grant is currently the Design Director at Onfire Design in Auckland. He started his career in 1969 at Designscape magazine, co-founded Designworks with Ray Labone in 1982 and in 2000 formed a partnership with daughter Kate to create Studio Alexander.