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As a young professional, one of your main challenges is to find a mentor who can guide you in your career.

It’s virtually impossible to launch and navigate your career in this complicated world and make the right decisions without insights from someone with experience who can help you maximize your potential. It’s a tough challenge; the right choice can accelerate your success and the wrong choice can hold you back.

What’s the best way forward?

The “mentor market” is burgeoning with many people promulgating a variety of ideas on what it takes to have a successful career; the airwaves are cluttered with opinions and advice. Subject-matter experts abound on every topic.

Given this message barrage, to whom do you listen? Whom do you believe? Whom do you trust? Whom do you follow? In whom do you invest your time? And how do you recognize when someone is “blowing smoke” at you and feeding their own ego rather than providing you with quality advice?

The reality that young people face is that those with impressive academic pedigrees seem to get the attention and respect that appeals to those seeking career guidance.

Professionals who publish papers, give expert seminars and write books get tagged as good mentor material, so naturally you look to them for help.

I urge young professionals to be wary of these types of mentors; my experience is that amazing mentors are not found in the halls of academia and publishing but in the trenches of organizations where the work actually gets done and results get delivered.

Find mentors who have done stuff

My counsel to you is to find and listen to people who have had a rich and long career actually doing stuff – lots of stuff – and who have demonstrated achievements in the areas that intrigue you. If your ambition, for example, is marketing, find a marketing practitioner who has a strong track record of achievement in implementing new products, launching successful advertising programs and managing pricing in a highly competitive marketplace. And shy away from marketing pundits that may be knowledgeable in marketing theory but lack the credentials in applying what they know.

Theory and academic principles are not trustworthy beacons for what works and what doesn’t work in the real world, which is replete with bias, uncertainty and unpredictability. Just because theory says it is the right thing to do doesn’t mean it will work – there are simply too many variables in play.

Find people who have a doctorate in messiness

Find people who have implemented successful strategies in an environment of organizational politics, cultural impediments and the wars of competition – where achieving anything worthwhile is messy, inelegant and often painful.

It’s not always easy to find these individuals to recruit as mentors because they are always heads-down in the swamp getting things done and not always receiving public acknowledgment and recognition.

Look for these individuals who have learned that a minor portion of theory with a major dose of practicality is the formula for success.

Discover operators, not thinkers

Find your way into groups of operations leaders in your organization and get insights on individuals they admire and respect because of what they achieve – not what they learned at school. Find people with a different type of MBA experience: masters in business achievement.

Let front-line people guide you

Talk to front-line people about who they think is effective at getting stuff done. People engaged in execution are in a great position to identify supervisors and managers who excelled at supporting the execution process.

Look to small-business leaders who must achieve to stay alive

Develop relationships with associations such as boards of trade whose members are typically small-business leaders and whose daily bread is produced by what they do, not by what they plan. Focus on members who get media recognition because of their consistent, sterling results.

Find people who have failed

Look for individuals who have a track record of failure, because failure is the most significant determinant of learning.

The media is a good source to discover business failures and the people who were involved. Failures rarely happen because the idea was completely worthless; they happen because a brave idea could not be implemented. It’s always a good idea to talk to people responsible for a failed idea and see what you could learn from them.

Study execution cultures

Research other organizations and find those that have a culture of execution rather than one that tends to a lot of discussion and thinks that knowledge alone will produce brilliant results. Probe for leaders who have achieved noteworthy results and who may not be spectacular on the know factor but are accomplishing on the do scale.

A very wise colleague of mine used to say “Doing it is 10 times better than talking about it” and I suggest you find a mentor that walks the talk.

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