Get To Work: With Suzy Welch

Suzy Welch: Here's why everything you've been told about mentors is wrong

Most millennial employees have heard this all-too-familiar advice: Find a mentor.

According to the prevailing wisdom, a mentor should be an older colleague, someone whose field is the same or similar to yours, and you should remain in close contact with that person throughout your career.

Right? Not according to CNBC contributor Suzy Welch. She says that this approach tends to be unrealistic.

"A mentor doesn't have to be Yoda," she tells CNBC Make It. "They don't have to be old, or even senior to you. They just have to do something you want to learn."

Bestselling management author and CNBC contributor Suzy Welch.
Bestselling management author and CNBC contributor Suzy Welch.

The traditional approach, she warns, of emailing a senior-level employee who can take you under their wing works "once in a blue moon," and that "unless you're swimming in personal connections, you'll be waiting on a reply forever."

In order to build a truly productive relationship with a mentor, Welch advises adjusting your assumptions about who makes a good mentor.

To start, she says you can find a mentor by focusing on the skills you value. For example, if a colleague is great at giving presentations, connect with them to see how they can help you improve. Or, if a colleague is great at bouncing back from criticism, reach out to them and see if they can show you how to do the same.

"The great thing about this type of mentorship is that it doesn't have to last years," she says. "You're not asking for a lifetime commitment. A mentorship can be a day, a week or a month."

Next, Welch says you should throw away the idea that a mentor has to be someone you know.

She recalls the early days of her career as a reporter for the Miami Herald when she was obsessed with a colleague named Liz Balmeseda.

"She was my age and better than me at everything," says Welch.

From her writing and interviewing skills to her ability to connect with company execs, Welch says she watched Balmeseda's moves like a hawk.

"I mirrored her traits and learned the skills that made her so successful," she says. "I guess you could say I was a bit of a stalker — but she was an incredible mentor without even knowing it." They've since become great friends.

Yes, you can try emailing an esteemed older colleague in hopes they'll agree to be your mentor, but Welch emphasizes that relying solely on this method will only hurt you in the long run.

"Look, the bottom line here is waiting for an unattainable mentor will do you no good," she says. "Seek out the ones who are available to you right now. Who knows? Some might even stick around for your entire career. But that's only if you change your perspective."

Suzy Welch is the co-founder of the Jack Welch Management Institute and a noted business journalist, TV commentator and public speaker.

Video by Richard Washington

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