Formal vs. Informal Mentors


In my experience, mentors have a bigger impact on your success than virtually anything you can do outside of your own efforts.

Building your career without mentors is like trying to climb Mt. Everest without a Sherpa and guide. Sure, you can attempt it — but why would you?


If you rely on your personal talents and energy alone, you are at an extreme disadvantage to those who get help — both in terms of getting your current job done well, and also in getting ready for, and getting access to your desired job.


The next Executive Playbook opening up in my Executive Mentoring Group is on Mentors and Sponsorship.

In the Playbook I will share the critical types of mentors and sponsors you need to be developing in your career. But for today I want to talk about an important point which is: The difference between formal and informal mentors.


Don’t get hung up on the term “mentor”.  It’s doesn’t need to start as anything formal or named.

Just buying a coffee for someone you can learn from is a great start. Getting the benefit of their time is the important part, not whether or not they are, or will become, a formal mentor.

Many people build up the idea of mentors in their mind as such a big and formal thing that they never even start to pursue it.

Instead, think of a first step as being about spending time with smart people. That’s it.

Spend time with smart people

Set a goal for yourself to spend time with smart people.

When someone does something that interests or inspires you, take moment to learn a little bit about them and their work and then contact them and ask for 10 minutes.

All you need to say is, I was really inspired by the work you did on X, and it would be of a great help to me if you could spend 10 minutes with you and I could get your advice.

That’s it.

The more often you do this, the better off you will be.

Then…if the conversation goes well, ask for permission to ask for another meeting.

You never need to refer to this type of interaction as mentoring if you don’t want to.

I can tell you that I have had many mentors in my career who never knew that they were my mentor!

I got the value that I needed, but for them it was never a formal responsibility or obligation.

In the Executive Playbook, I share how to transform this type of mentor into a formal mentor — which is also a great thing — but you don’t ever need to do that to still get a lot of value from the connection.


The other type of informal mentors I have had in my career is what I refer to as imaginary mentors.

These were business leaders or people who inspired me with their success, their creativity, their kindness, and their ability to lead successful organizations. I was impressed both with their capabilities and values.

Some of them I had direct personal contact with from time to time, and for others I knew them through only their work and public communications.

For me, when I was I a tight spot, it was always a valuable thing for me to to be able to ask, “What would Al do in this situation?”.

Al, is a real person, by the way, who was a mentor very early in my career. Al showed me through his actions that you could be a super successful and powerful business person without being an asshole.

We lost touch for many years as I was growing my career, but throughout that whole time, when I was feeling pressure to be extra aggressive to reach the executive level, I always thought about Al.

Al was my imaginary mentor. I would think about Al and remember, I can still be a kind person AND a powerful business leader.

I’m pleased to report that we regained contact and he is a good friend and still a valuable mentor. Here’s a picture of us on 5th Ave in NYC where he helped me launch my book MOVE.


A formal mentor is someone who has agreed to spend regular time with you and be a sponsor for your career.

In the Executive Playbook and webinar, I talk about how to find the right mentors and how to ultimately ask them to formally be your mentor in a way that is not weird or uncomfortable.

Don’t get hung up on the formality of mentoring. Simply get in the habit of always asking for help, advice, ideas and best practices from smart people and you’ll be on a great track.

Join a free webinar to learn more about Mentoring and how to get the Executive Playbook on Mentors and Sponsorship for free.

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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor.
She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or Facebook, or read her books RISE and MOVE.

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