Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living—if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.
— Denzel Washington
Last month I wrote about how to upgrade your skill set (with or without your company’s assistance). One of my recommendations for upping your game is to find a mentor—someone who can offer personal guidance when you run into challenges or have questions on how to proceed. But getting a mentor isn’t just a matter of walking up to someone and asking if he or she is interested in mentoring you. So how to find a mentor?
Organizations often use formal mentoring programs not only to improve their managers’ skills but also to motivate and retain their high-potential employees. If your company has a formal program, definitely apply for it, because the employees selected for these opportunities are typically those whom the organization wants to retain (and potentially promote). If you aren’t picked, don’t fret—but do ask follow-up questions to determine what you need to do to be selected for the next cycle. Stay in touch with your boss or with the HR department to ensure that you’re actually making improvements in those areas they recommend and that you’re on the right track to be chosen the next time you apply.
If your company doesn’t have a formal program, however, don’t let that stop you from finding a mentor. Don’t rush out and just pick anyone, though! Do your homework to find the right fit.
Determine What You Hope to Achieve
When figuring out how to find a mentor, start with the end in mind. Figure out what you want to gain from a mentor and how she can help you reach your goals. Understanding what you hope to achieve in the relationship will help you narrow down which candidates to approach. At the same time, ask yourself what you can offer to a mentor that will make the relationship worthwhile for her. Remember, mentoring is a two-way street. In order to entice someone to mentor you (especially someone you don’t know), you need a clear understanding of what you bring to the table.
Know what you want before approaching anyone about establishing a mentoring relationship. Pinpointing in advance what’s important to you will save time and hassle—for both you and your potential mentors.
Search for a Mentor
Review the list of managers in your company and identify one or two leaders who are highly respected by the employees. If you’re new to the organization or there are managers whose leadership styles aren’t familiar to you, chat with their direct reports. Most employees are delighted to talk about their bosses (and if they can’t offer any positive suggestions about them, that is an interesting data point—but verify this perspective by checking with multiple sources).
If you prefer to have a mentor from outside your company (or if there aren’t any leaders in your company whom you admire), review your own network for potential mentors. Possibilities include former executives of your organization, connections via LinkedIn, alumni from your alma mater, or people you know through other industry sources or group affiliations. Networking events, conferences, and trade shows can also be great venues for finding potential mentors.
Make the Initial Contact
After identifying a potential mentor, learn as much as you can about him before you reach out. Check LinkedIn to see if you have any shared connections, which can be a great icebreaker (even if you both work for the same company). If you don’t know a potential mentor personally, an introduction from an acquaintance you have in common can help you establish a connection (and perhaps help you make a favorable first impression, too).
If you’re blindly reaching out to someone with whom you have no connections, go for a quick e-mail introduction that mentions common ground, specific interests, or discussion points and asks for a brief, fifteen-minute phone conversation or in-person meeting. Hopefully, this brief contact with your potential mentor will pique her curiosity and spark interest in talking further with you. Being specific about what you seek from the relationship will help a potential mentor determine whether the two of you are a good mentor match. And be clear and succinct in your note: if you ramble in this e-mail, your potential mentor may assume that you ramble on the phone and in person, too.
If you don’t hear from your potential mentor soon, follow up but don’t hound him or her. If a check-in two to three weeks after your initial contact bears no fruit, you should assume that he isn’t interested in mentoring you right now. You can still try to maintain a relationship (even if it’s one-way), however, by passing along articles or news that may interest him.
Make a Good Impression
Always keep in mind that your mentor is doing you a favor (this goes for internal programs as well), so make sure that you are appreciative of the time she takes out of her schedule to assist you. I strongly recommend traveling to her location in order to maximize your time together. You want to make it as easy as possible for your mentor to help you!
During your first meeting or phone call, ask for advice on a single topic or problem. Don’t overwhelm your mentor with every question you ever wanted to know! Instead, use this opportunity to build rapport. The goal is to establish a mentor relationship for the long term—not to have a comprehensive one-and-done meeting. It’s definitely okay to your discuss goals for this relationship, but again, keep in mind that if this is a new connection, you don’t want to overwhelm him with all your problems, because he may feel that they’re beyond the scope of his time (and interest) and therefore might be disinclined to mentor you.
Also, don’t make assumptions about your mentor’s time or how she prefers to interact with you. Ask her how she would like to communicate and how often, and if you settle on a time limit (fifteen or thirty minutes, for example), be respectful of your mentor’s time and don’t go beyond it.
Get the Most out of Mentoring for the Long Haul
Your mentor’s advice may not always be easy to swallow, but keep in mind that he got where he is for a reason and probably knows what he’s talking about. Here are a few more helpful tips for working with a mentor:
- Set pride aside. Resolve to be both teachable and coachable.
- Cultivate the relationship. Ask questions and listen actively to the answers.
- Help your mentor help you. If you have a specific question or need, let your mentor know. It’s up to you to do the homework for your meetings and set the schedule.
- Return the favor. You’re bound to excel at some skill that can benefit your mentor. Mentorship is a two-way street, so try to help your mentor in any way that you can.
- Have fun! Although your ultimate goal is to learn, nothing says you can’t enjoy the time you spend with your mentor. Make your meetings a time you both look forward to.
A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.
— Oprah Winfrey
Remember, you and your mentor will both get out of this relationship what you put into it. So work hard to make it worth your time and hers. If nurtured carefully, the relationship you have with your mentor can be one that lasts throughout your career!