When you’re in a difficult situation, can you reach out to an unbiased and reliable adviser who believes in you, unconditionally cares about your success, and will not judge you? Someone who will give you sound advice or get you the right counsel, if s/he can’t help you?

A mentor can come in handy at forks in the road, when you are struggling with tough choices, dealing with a crisis, or clueless about what to do, In fact, we think mentors are necessary for success in the hurly-burly of professional life today.

Many of the questions we’ve got from young professionals are about mentorship: How do you get a mentor, who is the best person to ask, and how do you make sure it is a productive relationship for you? Even more, is mentorship all that it is made out to be? Or just the flavour of the month, built on hype and jazz?

Over the past few years, the value of mentorship has grown, especially in the world of entrepreneurship, where young founders are often matched to seasoned business builders who can help them manage the peaks and troughs of start-up life.

Young professionals in corporate careers have less deliberate pairings. Every good boss, or manager, may not be a mentor, even if you’ve learnt a lot while working with them.

So, how do you find the right mentor? And what should you expect?

Quite simply, a mentor helps you through your professional journey. We have typically found our mentors in former bosses, colleagues and teachers. There is a familiarity, mutual respect, yet some distance (they are former teachers, managers or bosses). Having one or two mentors is ideal, and they may change over time. Typically, a mentor draws on personal experience to help you. It’s about insights from their lived professional experience.

In many ways, mentoring is transactional. While initial meetings will likely focus on sharing professional journeys and familiarizing a mentor with your context, subsequent conversations should centre on specific questions that come from you: Either they should be related to a workplace situation, or on how to achieve a goal. There is nothing more irksome for a mentor than spending an hour chatting in a freewheeling chat. The most irritating question a mentor can be asked is, “Tell me about your life."

Go into the conversation with a plan, and meaty questions. Have a sense of how you want to spend the time. For example, a senior professional recently wanted mentoring on why, despite having a great relationship with the senior management team, he felt he hadn’t been able to build a personal brand. This prompted several conversations on competencies and leadership style.

What will the mentor get out of the relationship? For most mentors, there is a selfish need to make a difference to someone. But it’s also selfless, because they’re making the time for you, and are committed to your success.

As you start mentoring people, you start learning about yourself. It reminds you of the idealism you may have had once. Each mentoring conversation teaches human behaviour.

The worst—and most common—mistake is to think your mentor will get you a job. Don’t make it so transactional. The less you expect from a mentor, the more s/he will be willing to do for you.

A mentor is not a coach who teaches you how to do things, but someone who tells you what they would do if they were in your place. You don’t have to take all their advice.

Finally, it’s also not about name-dropping or networking. If at all there are any benefits to knowing a VIP, they will accrue later in life. For now, just soak in the advice and learn from their stories.

This is the sixth in the eight-part Art Of Work series on building a fulfilling career. Pramath Raj Sinha has founded several higher education institutions and Shreyasi Singh is a business author who now works in higher education. Read the first five columns in the series at Livemint.com/ArtofWork.

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