On the day I graduated from university, my favorite philosophy professor told me that the first thing I needed to do—before getting a job or applying to graduate school—was find a mentor. I was only 19, and I’d gotten far without one, but that wizened old Hegelian seemed to have foresight, because it’s advice I’ve gotten on repeat throughout my career.
Popular culture often paints a mentor as a very specific type of figure who takes you under their wing, gives you advice, shows you what to look out for, and introduces you to people you should know. And that’s certainly some of what they do in real life, too. But mentors come in all sorts of varieties, and they can be helpful no matter where you are in your career.
“As a university professor and career coach, I'm a huge advocate of finding mentors in life early and revisiting how those mentors are serving you in your development often,” says Muse career coach Nadia Ibrahim-Taney. Whether you’re a brand new professional, someone who just changed paths, a seasoned vet with imposter syndrome, or anyone who has or wants a job or career, mentorships can ground you and fuel your passions.
Here are seven types of mentors you should consider:
1. Traditional mentor
Have you ever heard that a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor? It’s a quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt that a colleague shared with me on one of those days when I was crying discreetly in the supply closet—or at least I thought I was being discreet. Careers are tough, but there’s comfort in feeling like you can turn to someone who’s been in the same boat before.
A traditional mentor is someone who’s been in your field or industry for more than a few years, like a supervisor from a past job or internship or a professor who helped you navigate your way from school into the workforce. They might’ve had your current job back in the day or perhaps they’re in the role you hope to have in the future. A traditional mentorship is a tried-and-true choice because the mentor has usually navigated the same path you’re on right now.
“In the early stages of my career, I gravitated toward individuals that were doing the jobs I was inspired by or aspiring to do myself,” Ibrahim-Taney says. “I used mentorship as a way to learn about the job market, my industry, and my place within it.”
A traditional mentorship can be a lasting bond that keeps you afloat all the way through far-off retirement. But keep in mind that as your path evolves, you might find yourself on a course that’s different from the one your mentor pursued—and that’s OK. You might continue to turn to them for some things, like broader career advice from someone you know and trust, and look to other mentors for help with other questions, like how to gain a foothold in a different industry or how to plan your parental leave. But no matter where you end up, this is a good person to have around for the successful voyages and the big storms.
2. Affinity-based mentor
An affinity-based mentorship grows from a place of commonality, often stemming from an underrepresented identity—whether it’s gender, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, or one of a myriad other characteristics. Not only does it benefit you and remind you that you’re not alone, but it can also lead to organizational or even industry-wide changes in policy or perception.
It’s tough navigating the office holiday party if you’re the only one who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, so think of an affinity-based mentor as someone who will help you practice how to tell your colleague you don’t want to sign up for Secret Santa. Or help you position yourself for a raise or promotion as a woman of color in an organization full of white men. Or talk you through a plan to pitch a full-time WFH setup and seek other accommodations that allow you to do your job best with a chronic illness.
Whether it’s signing up for a bowling league for single dads or joining a disability advocacy group, there are many ways to find someone who just gets it. You might start with what makes you feel isolated at work, like being the only Latina on your team at a tech company, and seek someone who’s been in a similar situation at your company or elsewhere. You can look to professional networks like your HBCU’s alumni directory or an industry association. There are plenty of strategies to identify potential mentors, Ibrahim-Taney says: “Joining employee resource groups, general networking, using LinkedIn to find folks that had volunteer experience in my identity communities—anything!”
When you find an affinity-based mentor, remember you’re both complex. Just because you speak the same language or have the same speech impediment doesn’t mean you’ll be twins. But what counts is knowing someone out there has at least one thing in common with you, knows what it’s like, can share their experiences, and will listen empathetically to yours. An affinity-based mentor can give you a blast of confidence and belonging that’ll keep you riding high through Friday.
3. Group mentor
Group mentorship is often set up in cohorts. Think of a summer internship program where the class of interns has a seasoned professional leading a mentorship cohort that meets weekly for Q&As, discussions, and workshops over lunch. Or a women’s leadership initiative that brings together a group of promising young professionals for training and conversation.
You can learn a lot from the mentor, but you can also learn from your fellow mentees and build relationships with your peers. When someone brings up a problem they’re facing and gets advice, you can look for ways you can apply the same advice to your own headaches. And in some cases, you’ll find that you start turning directly to fellow mentees for suggestions and support.
A group mentorship is a lot like a book club or lacrosse team in that there’s a shared sense of responsibility, a common interest that keeps things focused, and a lot of room for individuality.
4. Peer mentor
Skeptics might just call peer mentorship “friendship” or a collegial work relationship. But you can learn so much from folks who are roughly at the same seniority level as you while also forging a sense of camaraderie. Seeing a peer’s strategy, advocating together for different resources, and being able to transfer projects or funnel clients to alternatives during your busy season are all added bonuses to this relationship.
Some questions to ask a peer mentor might be: What’s your read on this client? What process do you use for this complicated task? What do you prioritize in a project? How did you handle this situation at your organization? Does this seem right to you? Peer mentorship requires a shared understanding and agreement, especially if you’re in a niche market or your job depends on individual performance. Although peers are frequently also competitors in these situations, you can devise an agreement that’s comfortable for both sides. Think of including things like: What we talk about in Peer Mentor Club stays in Peer Mentor Club. Don’t bring my problems up to a mutual colleague. If you borrow a system, give due credit. If you contact a lead, clear it with the other person first.
5. Cross-functional mentor
Sometimes in a career it’s enlightening to seek out a perspective that’s so different from your own that it opens your eyes or changes your mind. A cross-functional mentor is a colleague on a different team or in a different department entirely who you might work with on larger projects or processes that involve multiple stakeholders. They’re not quite a peer and they’re removed from a supervisory relationship, but they know just enough about your role and team that they can provide a new frame of reference.
This might be one of the easiest mentorships to cultivate, because it lives under the umbrella of networking. You probably interact with potential cross-functional mentors on projects or at org-wide events already, so find someone with a different title and vantage point than you and suggest that you have a one-on-one to get at the heart of the insights you can offer each other. For example, if you’re a software engineer, you might seek out a coworker in marketing to understand how users are responding to features you’re coding. Or if you work in sales, you might look to someone in the legal department to help you understand the nuances and complexities of the contracts associated with deals you’re closing.
Ask questions like: What do you wish my department knew about your work? What kind of asks, like updating the customer relationship management system, can we partner on so that our departments mutually benefit?
6. Reverse mentor
It might sound like the name of a silly reality television show (Reverse Mentor: Flip Your Internship). But it’s not (yet?) and can actually be quite illuminating. A reverse mentorship is when an executive, middle manager, or anyone with some seniority purposely seeks out the perspective of a newbie or someone without as much power and responsibility in an organization. It can be humbling and eye-opening to interact with an intern or early career professional in a relationship where the newbie is the mentor. So how does that play out?
You can look to a reverse mentor to get feedback on how a new system or process is working out from the folks who actually use it every day. You can turn to them to help you explore and learn new tools or skills. You can ask them for their read on how customers might engage with a particular feature or service. And you can seek a fresh point of view on potential strategies. If you’re an executive or other seasoned professional looking for a reverse mentor, be clear that you value this person’s perspective and will listen to what they have to say. Don’t ask them for help solving issues where they don’t have expertise or where you’ll likely ignore their say, but do ask them for input on matters that affect them.
7. Parasocial mentor
Don’t be scared away by the term “parasocial.” In some contexts, like fandoms, this kind of one-sided relationship, where an audience member feels like their idol is speaking straight to them, can be toxic. But researcher Sean Robinson says parasocial mentorship—where the mentor is a public speaker or expert who passes on advice through engaging but distanced communications—can be helpful in an increasingly hostile and lonely world.
You might find a YouTuber who vlogs about their teaching career while doing makeup or seek out a LinkedIn influencer who posts regularly about lessons they’ve learned about being a manager. A parasocial mentor can provide healthy and realistic insight for a student who’s just chosen a major but isn’t thinking about what the day-to-day grind in their chosen profession might be like. If you’re a brand-new paralegal, you can figure out the right outfits to wear on your first day. It’s also a great tool for advocacy; if you notice that a teacher in another state doesn’t have to log every intervention in a cumbersome system, it can give you a blue ribbon idea to bring to your school district.
And it can help you feel less alone even if you don’t know anyone personally who’s gone through what you’re facing: Hearing another person talk about how they plan to cope with getting laid off, for instance, can break the isolation and remind you that your problems aren’t so unique or impossible. It’s refreshing to see a day in the life of someone else.
But stay cautious; when people publicly talk about their career, they might just be presenting the highlight reel. And if you’re just an audience member, you can’t probe, ask for nuanced advice for your particular situation, or get a letter of recommendation. It’s a one-way street.
How do you know which type of mentor to look for?
The type of mentor you need will shift and evolve throughout your career. Or types—you don’t have to pick just one at any given moment! Here are a few quick tips to help you figure out what you need right now:
- Consider your career stage. Are you just starting out, or have you established yourself as an expert in the field? Do you want to talk with an expert who can problem-solve, or someone down in the trenches with you who understands the pressure?
- Think about what kind of time you have (or want) to invest. Some mentorships require weekly sessions or require a lot of effort on your part to cultivate, while others might unfold more organically. Think of a group mentorship program with weekly two-hour sessions vs. an affinity-based or peer mentorship where you grab a coffee whenever something comes up and you want to chat. And on the flipside, think about how much support and time you need from your mentor. In a traditional mentorship with an executive or department chair, you might find that your mentor is so busy they don’t have time to talk regularly.
- Try to pinpoint what you need right now. Someone to commiserate? Someone to motivate you? Someone to help you take the next step in your career? Imagine the conversation you wish you could have with a mentor. What does it look like? What kind of person are you picturing? When you let yourself daydream about what the actual meeting looks like, you may gain clarity on what type of mentor you’re actually hoping to find.