I've been mentoring people and seeking mentoring myself for the past 12 years or so, mostly because I've decided that mentoring is not really an optional activity in business. People have an innate desire to pass on what they know. It's almost like the knowledge builds up in your head and needs to find a new host; and, the act of sharing strengthens what you know.
Here are a few things I've learned over the years to maximize the benefits:
1. Don't just seek a mentor--be one.
It's important to find a mentor for yourself and be a mentor to someone else at the same time. This means you receive and give at the same time. Not only do I seek out mentoring, but I usually have at least one person I'm pouring into. From my mentors over the years, I've learned about how to stay persistent in "selling" my freelance services, which pitfalls to avoid when it comes to my finances, and dealing with the dry periods in business that always come. I can't imagine not having someone who gives me counsel on a weekly basis.
2. Teach what you know.
You might think you are not a capable mentor yet. I like to spin the old adage "write about what you know" into "mentor about what you know" instead. A few years ago, I started mentoring a new writer, usually by email, and she blossomed quickly. Whenever there was a conflict with her work, I was there to offer tips from my own experience. The goal is to give just the right amount of advice and see if that person can take what they've learned and run with it. I'm not a "certified" instructor by any means; I just share what I know.
3. Avoid the trap of control.
One common mistake is to use mentoring as a form of coercion. In my corporate life, when I was much (ahem) younger, I sometimes mentored as a form of control. Someone on my team would need my advice, so I abused the privilege and offloaded my own work. "Oh, you want to learn about document management? Sure, here is a new project for you--get these documents managed by next Monday." Not good. Make sure your motives are pure--you just want to see the person flourish.
4. Seek mentoring for the right reason.
You can seek a mentor for the wrong reasons as well, usually as a way to get free advice you'd normally have to pay for. Under the ruse of seeking advice, I've picked the brain of someone to feed their ego but really had ulterior motives to pilfer information and advance my career. Not everyone has the best motives in seeking you as a mentor, and it's important to check your own motives. The goal is mutual learning.
5. Use your time wisely.
Mentoring takes time, so it's easy to burn cycles on the activity. One of my worst mentoring experiences took place about 10 years ago. I met with a guy who wanted to learn my profession and I shared what I knew. We met several times, and then he suddenly announced he had no interest in pursuing the field anymore. I should have looked for the signs: he didn't apply any of the practical tips, he was usually late to the meetings, and he had a few other irons in the fire besides. He was wasting my time.
6. Don't put it off too long.
If you are not mentoring anyone now, get with the program! Your lessons need a host. If you have started a new company and you're the one looking for the mentoring, don't waste any more time in finding a suitable advisor. As the old tech slogan goes, "information wants to be free," so what are you waiting for?