When interviewers ask you this question, they want to find out if there is anyone in your professional history who has made a difference in your life? They don't really care what the person taught you, but the question is asked in order to discover whether or not you can connect with your bosses and learn from their experience.
What is a Mentor?
When you are asked, "Who is your mentor?", really you are being asked "Do you have anyone from whom you have learned a lot?"
A mentor is someone who offers advice and counsel, and who lends you his or her resources to help you advance in your professional or personal life. A mentor can be someone as important as the CEO of a big company, or it could be the neighbor next door who teaches you simple life lessons while helping you fix your bike.
As long as the person offered you advice that made a difference in your life, that person could very well be considered a mentor.
How to Answer the Question
Don't think of a mentor as someone who is only at work, but try to look at the people in your life that you consider important. If you find someone within your company or at a previous job who helped you, you can mention them as a mentor. However, don't feel obligated to say, "My old boss" or "my former CEO" if you didn't really feel they were your mentor.
Take the time to sit down before the interview, and think about someone who has helped you make progress in your life. It could be someone who helped you to advance your professional career, or who offered you some advice that helped you to deal with some personal issue. There will always be people who have helped to make you who you are today.
Think about the person and what they offered, and try to form that into a short two-sentence answer. For example:
- "I consider my former CEO a mentor. He gave me the push I needed to find my place in the company, which gave me the confidence that made me successful."
- "A co-worker from my previous company took me under her wing when I was new to the job, and thanks to her help I was able to achieve my goal of (X accomplishment)."
If you won a big award or achieved something outstanding, there will always be people who helped you to achieve that goal. You can credit them as your mentor, or at least acknowledge that you consider them "like" your mentor even if they didn't offer you any mentoring.
You don't have to have someone in your life who is your mentor, but it always makes you look better in the interview if you can point to someone who helped you out. It makes you look like a person that people would want to mentor, someone who will learn from the advice and counsel of others.