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Why Choosing The Wrong Mentor Could Be Holding You Back

Kathryn Minshew is the cofounder and CEO of The Muse, a website that lists jobs, company profiles and career coaching services as well as articles and videos with professional advice. Since launching in 2011, the company reports having reached 50 million users. And this year, Minshew and her cofounder Alex Cavoulacos published their first book, The New Rules of Work.

So Minshew is fully immersed in career advice. But when she talks about her own growth and development, her expansive view of mentorship stands out. Throughout her career — which has spanned foreign service, public health and tech startups — she’s turned to colleagues and connections to help plan her next step.

Here, she explains why it’s important to cultivate many types of mentors and get comfortable asking for feedback.

Redefine “Mentor”

“What I think is really interesting is people talk a lot about finding a mentor, but most people have a very narrow conception of what that is,” Minshew says. “It’s a generally older, more successful person, who can take them under their wing and show them the way.” Minshew doesn’t discount traditional mentors, but says, “I think it’s much more helpful to think expansively about people in your network who can mentor or help you in different ways.”

Minshew has found huge value in peer mentors — people her age or maybe a few years older, working in a similar field or role. “They can literally tell you what you’re about to experience, and they’re living it in the trenches.” When she was starting The Muse, it was not “successful entrepreneurs who raised $50,000,000,” so much as another female CEO, who had raised more modestly a few months earlier, who was able to offer the best insights. “She had her pulse on exactly what the experience was, what the market was like right now, and because we were in very similar life stages, her advice was also very relatable and tactful, you know, in a way that somebody is speaking from a mountain of experience couldn’t really understand.”

Minshew has also found “outsider” mentors — contacts who have a similar role in a different industry, or a different role in her own industry — “can often provide a completely different perspective and can help you challenge the conventional wisdom.”

Assemble a Rotating Board of Advisors

Once you have a diverse mix of mentors, Minshew recommends choosing the right person for the challenge at hand. “I probably have a small number of people that are consistently advisors and mentors, but I’m much more likely to have a broader array of … almost like an unofficial board of advisors, where I know that certain people are going to be good for certain types of topics.”

“Also, I’ll specifically vary the types of people I ask. For example, if you have a difficult employee personnel issue, I might specifically ask someone who I know is likely to come to it from the most empathetic, warm-hearted perspective, and also I might ask someone who’s likely to come to it from the most like, ‘Just do the damn thing, rip the band-aid off, whatever, it’ll be fine.’”

Get Vulnerable

The catch is, to get really good advice, Minshew says you need to be really honest about your challenges. “I tend to find you have to be fairly vulnerable to get something … to get a perspective worth having. Which can be controversial. But I find telling someone what you’re thinking about, what you want and what you’re afraid of, can often help them give guidance.”

And not only does Minshew advocate for sharing insecurities and uncertainties, but she also thinks you need to seek out neutral contacts — not friends — if you want honest feedback. “Sometimes, where somebody is a friend, they can be blinded by their sort of affection for you, and it’s harder for them to give you the hard truths.”


This article was first published on the Forbes website.

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