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Stop Looking for the Perfect Mentor. Build Your Own Instead.

Traditional mentoring is rare, but technology enables you to take matters into your own hands.

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BY Spencer Rascoff - 27 Jun 2018

Stop Looking for the Perfect Mentor. Build Your Own Instead.

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Mentoring is a hot topic in the workplace these days and something I and other leaders have been really vocal about. Critical issues around gender inequality and underrepresented communities have put the pressure on leadership teams to develop a more diverse pipeline of future leaders, and mentorship is a big part of that.

But placing a spotlight on mentoring has drawn attention and questions from all aspiring professionals, specifically, "How do I find a mentor?" I was working on my answer during a recent exchange with a newly hired sales executive at Zillow Group when I had an epiphany: Traditional one-to-one mentoring is actually pretty rare.

The classic understanding of "mentor" is more akin to a student sitting at the foot of a teacher -- Plato to Socrates -- than to what mentoring has become today. Though some mentoring relationships still have this one-to-one intensity, the reality is that mentoring has followed suit with other relationships being transformed by technology: dates made with a swipe, eSports played and spectated virtually, and every skill or hack you'd want to learn available on YouTube.

Mentoring is now lighter weight, even on demand, yet aspiring professionals wring their hands attempting to find their Socrates -- that one mentor who is going to decode their professional future. Trying to match the classic perception of mentorship with the way we pursue relationships today is a losing game; you'll just frustrate yourself, and your tunnel vision for an all-in-one person will blind you to partial gains from others. My advice? Stop looking for the perfect mentor, and build your own instead.

My career has been full of different mentors: I learned from my dad how to balance family life with a career you love; I learned from Jim Coulter, founder of TPG Capital, how to evaluate investments (I still keep a list of "Coulter's Q's" handy when we acquire or invest in companies); I continue to learn from Rich Barton, co-founder and executive chairman of Zillow Group, how to take big swings and motivate and inspire teams. Outside of face-to-face mentors, I've had many virtual mentors -- people I've met at conferences or events and kept in touch with via email, careers I've watched from afar, leaders I'm inspired by and who've faced the challenges I'm facing now.

Whether in person or virtual, each of these mentors provides me with different tutelage to inform different crossroads in my life. Not one is a "one-stop" mentor, but combined they are the perfect mentor for me. If you want to build your perfect mentor, here's what I recommend:

First, figure out what you need in a mentor. If you blindly pursue mentorship without reflecting on what you need, you won't know what to look for. Ask your family, your colleagues, your manager and, most importantly, yourself what you need to grow professionally and personally, accomplish your career goals, and be your best self.

Second, find people you admire at your company and within your community, identify what specifically you want to learn from each of them, and set up meetings. Keep in touch with the connections that work out, and supplement your interactions with observations. There's a lot you can learn from a mentor's one-to-many communications and actions without your mentor really having to do anything. Some of my most valuable lessons from Rich, for example, have come just from reading things he writes or watching speeches he gives -- leveraging his frequent one-to-many lessons and co-opting them as my own.

Third, find a handful of virtual mentors -- people you might never meet who are topical experts or who are where you want to be. Follow their interviews and social media feeds, and learn from them. These people can be mentors, even if they have no idea who you are. Here are some of mine:

  • Steve Aoki on Instagram for social media and personal brand-building

  • Jeff Weiner for general people management topics

  • Sheryl Sandberg for her approach to thought leadership

  • Fred Wilson and Mark Suster on their personal blogs for venture capital and entrepreneurship

  • Essays from NFX partners -- I really like the one on creating network effects

  • Eric Holder on Twitter -- his tone is direct and transparent, and he's smart

  • Warren Buffett for shareholder communication

  • Jeff Bezos in communicating strategic priorities

Our connected world has made mentors readily available, so don't wait for the perfect person who has all the answers. Take the pressure off finding "the one," and get systematic about finding many.

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