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I got an email from a former student who works in marketing and wants to pursue opportunities as a speaker. She wanted to know whether I thought it was important to have a mentor.

Of course, I’m biased. I mentor writers who want to publish articles in national magazines so I think it’s important to have a knowledgeable guide who supports your professional goals.

But I was a big believer in mentoring long before I signed my first client.

I have a freelance career because I had a great mentor who helped me get started.

Before I started freelancing, I was a career counselor. When I moved to Portland in 2000, I volunteered for a small magazine, writing and editing articles while I looked for work. During a conversation with the editor-in-chief (who was a successful freelancer) I complained about the job search and she said, “You should freelance.”

I knew nothing about the business of writing but she promised to show me the ropes. Within weeks, I had a paying freelance assignment. Over the next few years, she continued to support me as I moved from writing for local publications to national magazines. Without a mentor who could review queries, make suggestions for potential markets and answer questions about contracts and editor relationships, I might be wearing pantyhose, working in a cubicle and working for the weekend.

Since then, I’ve taken writing classes, hired business coaches and booked one-on-one retreats to help me set goals, overcome roadblocks, see new possibilities and just plain get out of my own head.

If you’re thinking about seeking out a mentor, here are a few things to consider:

  • Mentoring relationships can be formal or informal: Your mentor might be someone who meets you for lunch once a month to offer career advice and facilitate networking experience to help you meet your career goals. A more formal mentoring relationship might include in-depth hands-on experiences like those offered through VocationVacations. It can also take the form of coaching. In the latter examples, the timing and cost are pre-determined.
  • Explore options within your network: If an informal arrangement sounds like a good fit, tap your network for potential mentors. You might connect with someone at work, school or church who will happily share their experiences and provide advice. Some companies even offer structured mentoring programs.
  • Take advantage of free or low-cost consults: Prefer a more formal arrangement? Meet with several potential mentors before choosing “the one” to make sure it’s a good match. Most professional mentors/coaches offer introductory sessions for prospective clients. During the session, prepare to ask questions about their services and experience. You can learn a lot about someone over coffee or a call.
  • Find the right fit: You want a mentor who specializes in the area you’re interested in pursuing. If I wanted to write a book, I’d look for a mentor/coach with publishing experience; for the former student who wants to pursue speaking opportunities, I suggested connecting with a professional speaker with a robust roster of speaking gigs. Finding someone who has a style you respond to is important. (Writers looking for a no nonsense coach who provides nuts and bolts advice to help them get published love me but writers who want a coach to gently lead them toward improving their craft know I’m not the right fit). Pay attention to your gut feelings about a potential mentor/coach. If it doesn’t feel like a good match, it’s probably not.
  • Ask for references: Before hiring a mentor/coach, ask to speak with past clients.
  • Pay it forward: There is always someone who is less experienced and eager to learn. Teach classes, volunteer for mentoring programs or take a new coworker for coffee. Sharing your knowledge and experience can make a difference.

Have you ever worked with a coach or mentor? What was the experience like?