This is the first of a two-part series on mentorship inspired by panels we hosted recently in San Francisco and Portland to give leaders relevant and actionable insight into one of the most valuable relationships in business: the mentor.

Behind every strong leader is a great mentor or team of advisors. Bill Gates had Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs had Ed Woolard and John Sculley, Sheryl Sandberg had Larry Summers, and Oprah Winfrey had Maya Angelou. In fact, in a survey reported by Forbes of 1,250 top executives, two-thirds reported having a mentor, and 29% of respondents out-earned their unmentored colleagues.

Study after study has proven that mentorship is a key driver of career success, including promotions, raises, and increased opportunities. Organizations that embrace mentoring experience higher levels of knowledge-sharing, employee engagement, retention, and productivity.  Mentoring has proved so effective that more than 70% of Fortune 500 companies offer mentoring programs to their employees.

Mentoring is proven to be even more helpful to women in addressing the barriers to career advancement. But,  Sandberg and Winfrey aside, women and non-binary people can have a harder time finding the right mentor to help them along their career journey;  men are 46% more likely to have a higher-ranking advocate in the office, according to economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, and just 54% of women have access to senior leaders who act as mentors or informal sponsors in their career, a report by professional services firm Egon Zehnder found.

How exactly do you identify the right mentor, and what are the best ways to maintain the relationship once you have it?  Propeller partnered with Hult International Business School to bring together a panel of passionate business leaders from a variety of industries to talk about the critically important role of mentorship, particularly for women. Keep reading for our key takeaways from the panel, which included Madhura Dudhgoankar, Han Vanholder, Ciara Claraty-Wright, Isabelle Lescent-Giles, and Christina Lee in addition to facilitators Janel Wellborn and Cindy Peterson.  

Mentorship opens your mind to a new perspective:

Dudhgoankar, a senior director of machine learning at Workday, thinks of mentorship as a lightbulb.

There’s a “season” for your career and mentor relationship: 

A career, like wine, has seasons, and you may need a new mentor for each, said Claraty-Wright, who is a consultant at Propeller.

“It gives you light,” she said. “It helps you see things you can’t see on your own.” 

For Han Vanholder, mentors play a vital role in helping you shift focus and question your perspective.

“Mentors can give you insights, but you own the decisions,” said Vanholder, who is a senior product manager at Google. “Mentors are the sounding board. The mentee also gets to provide their insights to the mentor, having an honest conversation.”

“Take time to reflect what season you’re in and find out what mentor you need to support you and maybe make the transition to the next season,” she said.

Your approach to finding a mentor should be tailored to the season you’re in, Dudhgoankar said. When you’re just beginning to explore a field, reach out to people who have been working in the industry for a year or two – they likely have fewer demands on their time than a more senior leader. Once you have a job in the industry, build relationships with people in other areas of the company to gain a better understanding of the environment. And as you progress in your career, target people with specific skills you’d like to build – and make your request for help targeted to that skill.

“Specific requests are the easiest to support and often take less time,” she said.

Lescent-Giles, who is a professor of strategy at Hult, emphasized the importance of being strategic in building a network of advisors rather than relying on a single mentor. Ask yourself: “What is knowledge I should know about? What is the right way to do things?” Consider how your potential conversation topics might differ with a mentor who works for your company than with someone who works for another company or in another industry – if you’re interested in making a job change, for example, that discussion might be off limits with an internal mentor. 

Build on the advice you receive: 

The best thing a mentee can do to keep their relationship with a mentor strong, according to the panelists, is to be accountable.

“Send them what you are doing with the tips they gave you, what you tried, what happened,” Dudhgoankar said. They’ll know that you are not only invested in the relationship but also working on your goals.

“Use what they tell you,” Vanholder added. “Don’t waste their time.”

In the next installment of our two-part series, we explore how to build a mentor relationship that matters.