Mentoring is a proven way to improve your skills at work. What’s more, having a mentor can increase your chances of getting a promotion or a pay raise. Some companies actively run mentoring programs; some encourage mentoring but don’t require it; many will leave it up to the employee to make their own arrangements. Whether your company expects you to have a mentor or it’s something you’ve decided to do for yourself, finding the right person can be a challenge.

Mentoring should grow out of an existing relationship.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, has described situations where she’s been approached by people she doesn’t know and asked to mentor them. A good mentor relationship likely won’t work if you’re just abruptly asking strangers at a conference. You might have admired them for years, but if they don’t know you, there’s no way that they can sincerely agree to mentor you.

Your mentor can be your boss, but it’s usually best if they’re not.

In some companies with a flattened hierarchy, the relationship between you and your boss might be closer to mentoring than to oversight and management. That can be a positive thing, but the fact that your boss can be like a mentor doesn’t mean that he or she is the right person to ask. It’s much better to ask someone who knows you and understands your work situation but isn’t the person you’re directly responsible to.

Networking is one of the best ways to build up a mentoring relationship.

Remember, you’re not going to ask someone who doesn’t know you, and you’re going to find someone who understands your situation but doesn’t directly manage you. Of course, there are online networks such as LinkedIn, but they tend to suffer from too much noise and not enough genuine connections. Events and professional conferences are great places to form relationships, but don’t go with the sole purpose of finding a mentor. (That would be like going to a friend’s birthday party just to find a date.) Instead, build up a range of relationships with people. Find someone who can answer your questions but who will also listen to your suggestions. When you can have conversations with someone that both challenge and affirm you, keep building that relationship.

Have a career plan in place before finding a mentor.

Mentoring without a career plan is like trying to use your car’s navigational system without putting in a destination. Mentoring might help you reevaluate your plans — it can certainly help to increase your self-confidence and ambition — but it won’t provide you with a direction if you have no idea where you’re headed. Identify your areas for development. Which skills do you lack? What kind of situations do you avoid? Who do you find it hard to work with? Try to find a mentor who will challenge your deficits as well as build up your strengths.

Having a mentor at work can open doors to better job prospects and a more fulfilling career. A mentor needs to be someone who knows you well enough to see your potential and understands your situation so they can appreciate your problems. Identify your strengths and weaknesses and use networking opportunities to create a range of different relationships. When you develop a relationship that challenges you and builds you up, then consider asking about mentoring.