I’ve always been annoyed by the word mentor. It conjures up visions of an elegant, silver-haired businessman patting the shoulder of a younger colleague in a fine restaurant while imparting sage advice.

In the business world, having a mentor is as much a status symbol as a Rolex. When people talk about their mentors, it sounds like they are giving a eulogy.

But when the Public Relations Society of America gave the founder of my firm, Bruce Rubin, a lifetime achievement award, I had to face facts. While it never came with a bow on it, or was part of a formal training program, I have a mentor – and a damn good one.

So here are my top four unvarnished “best mentor” traits that you won’t hear at an award ceremony.

  • Mentors nag. They challenge you to think about things you may not want to and to do things you often avoid out of inexperience or fear.
  • Mentors don’t sugar coat. If you want someone to tell you how great you are, call your mom. Mentors help you see the strengths and weaknesses and tell you in plain English.
  • Mentors have their own agenda. Yes, someone who agrees to mentor you has seen something that makes them want to invest their time helping you grow. At the same time, they have their own career and their own goals, too. Your job isn’t to be a copycat of your mentor and his or her career – it’s to learn and apply that knowledge to finding your own way.
  • Mentors never stop. Even when you believe you’ve reached the pinnacle of success, a mentor holds up the mirror for a reality check. Don’t be shy about looking long and hard.

So thank you to Bruce Rubin for more than two decades of taking the time to push me to be tougher, smarter and better. Some of it stuck and I’m still listening.

P.S. Bruce is a distinguished silver-haired businessman, though he prefers a good bagel shop to fine dining any day.