How Do I Get A Mentor?

by | May 18, 2020 | Career Advice, Mentoring

Hint: stop using the “M” word

Career Advisors, Speakers, and Managers are regularly asked by employees how to identify and engage with a mentor in a meaningful relationship.  In career classes and on-line articles about Career Development, Mentors and Sponsors are mentioned as a critical link in career success.  I have some ideas on this topic I am going to share with you today. 

The key message of this post is to stop calling them mentors to their face.  It freaks some of them out to be labeled.  They may be a potential mentor, just don’t use the word with them.  It can put too much pressure on folks.  Let me explain.  You need to establish a history and a relationship where they’ve helped you grow or connect by giving you helpful tips and advice.  Instead of using the “M” word, ask people if you may network with them and if that goes well, follow up afterward if the conversation was fruitful.  I recommend you do not ask the question ‘will you be my mentor?’ before or during your first meeting.  That is tantamount to asking someone you just met, “will you marry me?” It puts a lot of stress and pressure on someone the first time you meet them; especially before they know you and your talents and capabilities.

Second, be narrow in what you are looking for in a mentor.  Are you looking for ideas on how to influence strategically?  Are you looking for guidance on how to get to the next level?  Do you want to learn more about a particular topic or company?  You might plan to do all three, but rarely will one person know all the answers.  Be clear in what you are looking for so you can narrow your search.  It is okay to have more than one mentor!  I have four right now.  Each for a different area of my development.  (Only one knows I call them my “mentor.”  The others believe they are networking with me.)

 Third, consider looking for connections in LinkedIn – especially the groups, Levo League, or Alumni Forums.  Search using whatever skill you are looking for and set up a 1:1 telling them where you saw them and frame a short discussion you’d like to have with them.  Go with exploration in mind, not a formal mentorship.  You are trying to meet people and find one that will help or teach you.  You will not know they are mentor material until after a few meetings.   

Fourth, contact people who do whatever you’ve landed on in the third bullet and get to know them. Invite them for coffee, phone call or a video chat.  Talk about something they wrote or read or did that you thought was cool or interesting.  See how it feels.  See if you learn something.  If it feels right and you get something from the conversation, then ask them if you could continue the conversation in a few weeks.  Meet again having read or done whatever they suggested in your prior discussion.  Always report back having completed their suggestions and provide feedback.  If you have not completed the ARs, move the meeting out!  Be protective of their time and make sure you’re showing you are listening and making progress based on their suggestions.  Continue in this pattern.

Fifth, when you meet folks that you think might be a good fit or will contribute valuable knowledge and connections to enable your career, listen aggressively for their struggles, wants, needs, areas of interest, or problems.  Keep note of those things.  As you are exploring and networking, you might meet someone, read something, hear about a solution, or see a video that could help that person.  All of these things are ‘gifts’ you can give to your potential mentor. (Although, I also appreciate good chocolate and handwritten thank you notes detailing what I did that helped.) ‘Gifting’ can help you establish a stronger relationship faster.  Keep in mind, you may be the solution to their problem and offering up your support and expertise with something they’ve mentioned is another great way to build a closer relationship. 

Sixth, the effort you put into these relationships directly correlates to what you’ll get out of them.  If you only have conversations and don’t take any actions or follow-up, you will not get what you want out of the relationship.  If they do not feel like they are adding value, or you do not appreciate their advice or contacts, don’t be surprised if they do not accept your calendar notices in the future.

I like to remind Advisees that most Senior Executives, Vice Presidents, and Directors are comfortable dispensing advice, but they most likely won’t give you an opportunity or recommend you for a role if they do not see you in action every day.  Your best bet to land advocates and mentors is to work with someone in the middle of the hierarchy;  it is more likely they will stick up for you, offer you leads and give you assistance in your career journey.  Most senior execs are too busy with the bigger issues to do much more than give ideas, answer questions, share their vision or make introductions for folks that contact them.  I hear a lot of frustration from Advisees in this area.  “I met with that VP three times over the last year.  When I reflect on those conversations, while I got some context and answers and I felt heard, it did not result in anything substantial for my career.”  If they recommend you or advocate for you, they are putting their reputation on the line, and if you do not live up to expectations or hype, it looks bad for them.

Network effectively.   Find the ‘do-ers’ and mid-level managers and individual contributors to see what they can teach you and how you can help them.  Those folks will be your best mentors.

Good luck and let me know what you think below by commenting, sharing or giving me a thumbs-up on the blog.  If you have other suggestions, please share!  I’d love to learn from you.

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