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4 Ways to Find the Perfect Mentor for You—for Free

Andrew Pentis
Finding a mentor isn't always easy. Use these four ways to help you find a good match.

About 86% of CFOs say having a mentor is important to career development, according to a 2016 survey performed by Accountemps.

So if having a mentor is so important, why do only 26% of workers have one?

Unless your company offers a mentorship program, you probably haven't found one, either. Fortunately, finding a mentor for free is easy enough if you're willing to put in the work. There is no one perfect mentor out there for everyone, and there is no one perfect way to find mentors. But we do have some tips that can help.

So if you're ready to find a mentor, here are four different ways to find the best mentor for you, for free.

1. Make a Connection at Your School or Workplace

The most natural way to find a mentor for free is to ask someone on campus (if you're still in school) or in your office (if you've already graduated).

If you're still in school, you will want to take advantage of your college networking offerings. If you have a job with more experienced colleagues, see if you can develop a rapport with one. Ideally, you'll meet someone who holds a position you want down the road and is willing to work with you as your mentor.

The benefits of working with someone in your immediate network is that they can potentially go beyond helping you develop your skills. They could also help you navigate the office environment or work toward a better job.

Some companies offer mentoring programs that match seasoned professionals with entry-level newbies. In fact, 71% of Fortune 500 companies offer such a program, according to a 2015 white paper by mentoring-software maker Chronus.

Take advantage of a formal program if your school (via its alumni association) or company offers one. If it doesn't, become buddies with potential mentors in your social and professional circles by taking the time to get to know them.

As you might have learned from a bad first job, offering to buy a cup of coffee or contribute on a side project could get your foot in the door.

2. Make a Connection Online

You should make mentoring connections online even if you have options a few desks away. But if you're short on approachable or helpful senior colleagues, this step becomes even more important.

The most common advice is to look for someone who is where you want to be in five or ten years. But beyond that, it's also good to consider people who aren't in your field. A former professor, for example, might be able to think more outside the box because they're less aware of conventional wisdom that could lead you astray.

The people you're connected with might ask for a fee. If that's the case, consider these free ways to find mentors online instead:

  • Perform an online search for industry conferences.
  • Use a free website like findamentor.com.
  • Find a Meetup.com group near you.
  • Send LinkedIn invites (while LinkedIn tests its matchmaking service).
  • Email contacts asking for side projects and volunteer opportunities.

Be on the lookout for mentoring groups that specialize, such as those for minorities, women, students, and career-changers. The National Mentoring Partnership allows you to search for programs in your area.

Just don't take anyone at face value. "Nowadays, if you spend more than five minutes online, you'll see that everyone and their cousin has advice," New York City–based career coach Carlota Zimmerman said. "Be very leery. The difference between a mentor and a busybody is that a mentor has been in your shoes, made their own mistakes, and earned their wisdom."

3. Offer as Much Value as You Receive

Asking someone to be your mentor might seem like a grand proposal. So don't ask. Work to develop the relationship instead.

Perhaps the fastest way to speed up the relationship is to create a two-way street between you and your potential mentor.

"It's important to note that people who have attained a measure of success value their time and will not mentor just anyone," said David S. Patterson, the president of The Kineta Group, an executive search and consulting firm. "They do not necessarily need something in return for the mentorship, but they do need to make sure that whoever they mentor will not waste their time."

Offering to apprentice on your potential mentor's next project could go a long way. A mentor who can put you to work is just as valuable as, if not more valuable than, one who simply lets you pick their brain.

The most value you can offer to your potential mentor is to become the professional they wouldn't hesitate to hire or recommend to a colleague. Imagine if you went from a research assistant on a pro bono project to becoming a full-time employee. Your mentor might become your boss.

Don't discount small opportunities to provide value. As a younger professional, maybe you can trade your technical expertise to a mid-career professional in exchange for career navigation tips.

4. Foster Your Connection over Time

Once you've zeroed in on potential mentors, you need to maintain the relationship. The onus will be on you.

Think about what value you want from your mentor and how much time you can dedicate to the mentoring process. You may want to set up recurring in-person or online meetings to keep in touch. Remember that these meetings are your responsibility, so you'll want to prepare for each conversation by compiling notes on what you want to discuss. Because your mentor is giving you their time, you should be leading the discussion.

It's also wise to review your mentoring relationships every so often to ensure that you are getting what you need out of the relationship. If you don't feel like you're getting the value you want, it might be time to cut the cord and dedicate more time to other mentors.

Be Open to All Sorts of Mentors

Ideally, all professionals would easily find mentors who could help them grow as individuals. But by seeking out people you can truly relate to, you might come up empty at first. Don't stop searching. Consider other types of mentors, too.

"Mentors don't have to be people you know," author and speaker Shawn Anderson said. "They can be people you study, too. My two biggest life influences and mentors are people I have never met."

Anderson said he learned his sense of personal accountability from reading Benjamin Franklin's autobiography and adopted his professional style from author Og Mandino. So maybe your next best mentor isn't your boss or a new connection on LinkedIn. Maybe it's someone in your family, someone who lives on your block, or even someone you read about.

If you've seen successful professionals share their early-career learnings, you've probably heard them rattle off the names of all sorts of mentors. Most successful people had help from different types of mentors. Don't be afraid to ask for it—free of charge.

And for the rest of business needs that don't come free, there are loans to help. Check out our Small Business Loan Center for more information on finding financing as an entrepreneur or small-business owner.