Your relationship with a mentor is likely to be one of the most important of your career. Here are five steps to help you develop and nurture it.

If you’re like most people, you relish the idea of having a mentor, a trusted adviser to help you navigate professional life. But what’s the best way to find a mentor and get the most from the relationship? These tips can get you started.

Know what you need. Would your ideal mentor provide you with deeper industry knowledge? Advice about how to ace your first management job? Insights on handling office politics? The relationship will be more productive if you have a clear goal going in.

Just remember: Mentors are not an employment service. They also are not the people to call for reassurance about how super you are. “That’s what friends and family are for,” says Carol Vernon, a certified executive coach. A mentor’s value lies in providing an informed viewpoint, not job leads or cheerleading.

Explore both formal and informal ways to find a mentor. Many college alumni associations and professional organizations have programs to link volunteer mentors with mentees. ASAE members can use Collaborate, the association’s private social network, to connect with potential mentors. Through the network tab on Collaborate, ASAE members can access a member directory and use it to seek out a match based on several criteria. Collaborate also includes a mentor community that prospective mentees can search. In addition, ASAE offers several leadership development programs and conferences that include mentoring.

An informal mentoring relationship comes about less predictably. Often it starts at work or through a professional connection. You may not even realize you have a mentor until you notice “a click,” says Peter J. O’Neil, FASAE, CAE, executive director of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The person has seen something promising in you and is investing the time and attention to nurture it.

“Co-create” the relationship. This is the term Vernon uses for arriving at a mutual understanding about how to work together. Talk honestly about

  • what you want to learn and how that fits with what your mentor wants to provide.
  • approximately how much time you’re asking for.
  • how long you anticipate the most intense part of the relationship may last (typically six to nine months, Vernon says).
  • meeting logistics, including when and where to talk.

Be accountable for your own success. Sometimes a mentor may need to be “upfront and honest, blunt even,” O’Neil says. For example, at a time when you think you’re ready to be a CEO, your mentor may perceive that you’re not yet a fully capable director. If you’re serious about learning from your mentor, you need to be able to hear difficult messages, respond appropriately, and “take responsibility yourself to mature and grow,” he says.

Demonstrate gratitude. Once your mentoring sessions have largely met your needs, the relationship will ebb. Don’t let it fade without an appropriate thank you. Treat your mentor to lunch or give an appropriate gift, such as a meaningful book. Vernon suggests that you also ask, “How can I help you?”

Even after your sessions have ended, “let your mentor know how you’re doing—not just when you have a problem but also when things are going well,” says O’Neil.

As Vernon notes, “It’s truly one of the great sources of professional satisfaction when someone says, ‘Talking to you was a turning point for me.’ ” By this point, your mentor has given you so much. Staying in touch is a fitting gift to give in return.

Explore More

Your First Mentoring Session: What to do before, during, and after.

Answers to a Few Touchy Questions: Who pays for coffee? And more. 

Mentoring and Coaching: What’s the Difference? A brief comparison of two important relationships.