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How to Find (and Engage) the Right Mentor for You

One of the great pleasures of my job has been mentoring bright young talents around the world and assisting them in achieving their career dreams. In almost every instance, my prospective mentees have identified me, reached out, and made the connection happen. But these people are few and far between - most people go through their career never having accumulated mentors outside of their direct line managers. Which is a shame because as Forbes relays, Mentorship Is Key To Career Success For Young Professionals stating that:

"The benefits that you can gain from a good mentor relationship can outweigh grad school, natural ability, and even dumb luck. The key is to have the foresight and humility to ask to be mentored."

So in this article I aim to demystify mentorship and provide some concrete tips to help you find, connect, and build a lasting connection with the right mentor for you.

Let's start by defining mentorship and unpacking the roles of mentors and mentees. Wikipedia defines mentorship as "a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. The mentor may be older or younger than the person being mentored, but he or she must have a certain area of expertise." Mentees are responsible for scheduling interactions, providing progress updates, defining their key questions and career objectives, and taking feedback to heart and implementing necessary changes to achieve their goals. Mentors must make themselves available, learn more about their mentees strengths and potential derailers, understand their mentees aspirations, listen actively and intently, challenge self-limiting beliefs and biases, and provide feedback, counsel, and advice. Each side must hold up their end of the bargain for mentorship to be effective.

There are several situations where mentorship can provide maximum benefits:

  1. You are entering a new company

  2. You are starting a new position

  3. You are progressing into management for the first time

  4. You are dealing with a delicate situation such as an issue with a manager, employee, or trying to get a raise or promotion

  5. You are deciding on the next career move

There may actually be different ideal mentors depending on the situation in which you find yourself. For example, if you are entering a new company, the best potential mentors would be people slightly more experienced than you but who still vividly remember onboarding into the organization. If deciding on a career move however, the mentor does not necessarily have to be someone within your existing organization, just someone who has progressed through and successfully navigated their career and can provide advice and considerations along broad lines.

The situation and mentorship need should define how you go about choosing your ideal mentor.

Once you are clear on your situation and need for a mentor, how do you go about choosing the RIGHT one for you and the current situation? Well, I love this list from Jeff Goins (with my additional advice):

1. Find someone you want to be like: Don’t just find someone who has a job you want or a platform that you covet. Find someone that is like you, someone with a similar set of strengths and skills you want to emulate. Otherwise, you’ll just end up frustrated. Spend some time finding the right person. In fact, have several candidates before committing to a single mentor. Additional advice: A great tip is finding someone who you genuinely like and who inspires you to want to be more and do more.

2. Study the person: Follow her blog. Get to know people who know her. If you don’t know the person well, see if she is really like his public persona projects. Make sure you understand her strengths and weaknesses. Set your expectations realistically. Additional advice: Study, don't stalk - there is a fine line here. Try to understand if they are someone who appears to give advice freely or if they are more self-centered.

3. Make the “ask”: Don’t ask for the person to “be your mentor” right off the bat. That’s a big ask. Far too big for the first meeting. Rather, ask for an initial meeting — something informal, over coffee maybe. Keep it less than an hour. Come with questions that you’re prepared to ask, but let the conversation flow relationally. (Note: the formality really depends on the potential mentor’s communication style — something you should be aware of before the initial meeting.) When in doubt about when to make the ask, just go for it. (That’s what I do, and it usually works.) Additional advice: be assertive but cognizant of the mentor's potential workload and responsibilities.

4. Evaluate the fruit: After meeting, do you want to spend more time with this person? Did she begin the meeting by encouraging you or telling you what to do? Did she ask questions, or wait to provide answers? Did you leave the meeting feeling better about yourself? Was a connection made? If not, feel free to let the relationship go and seek out someone else, instead. You don’t have time to waste on a self-centered tyrant. If it went well, then immediately put together a follow-up plan. Additional advice: Chemistry is key to the mentorship relationship and you can't force chemistry so trust your gut in this stage.

5. Follow up after the meeting: This is not like dating. It’s okay to appear overly ambitious. You want this person to know that you’re serious. It’s appropriate to follow up immediately, thanking your prospective mentor for her time. A good way to do this is via email or other form of passive communication, so that you don’t appear overbearing or waste the person’s time. This is also a good time to mention that you’d like to do it again. If she reciprocates, offer to get something on the calendar. (You may need to suggest a time.) Make sure that it feels relaxed and not contrived. You’re still vetting each other at this point. Additional advice: Follow-up at intervals - don't become a bug-bear if your mentor doesn't immediately get back to you. Correspondingly, if you have followed up 3 times and not received a satisfactory response, move on.

6. Let the relationship evolve organically: We sometimes place too high of expectations on mentoring. We want to give it a name, because it gives us a sense of status and importance. But really it’s just a relationship. Mentoring is organic. It’s healthy to let it grow like any other relationship — over time and based on mutual respect and trust. Don’t force it. That will kill a potential mentoring relationship faster than anything. Give it time; it needs to grow. Additional advice: Try to find ways to add value to your mentor as well perhaps in the form of reverse mentorship. You are likely knowledgeable in an area your mentor is not. This two-way exchange will extend the life of your relationship. Share experiences, learnings, and ideas.

7. Don’t check out when you feel challenged: I was recently speaking with a friend who’s mentored a number of young men over the years. He said the saddest part about what he does is that a lot of guys check out whenever he challenges them. It will happen. You’ll get to a point where your mentor will feel comfortable enough to call you out. And what you do next is crucial to your growth. Remember: this is what you signed up for. Don’t wimp out when it gets tough; this is where the really good stuff happens. Additional advice:Sometimes we react more to the way we are challenged than to the challenge itself. Know yourself and your negativity triggers and manage yourself in these moments so you don't miss the most valuable part of the mentorship relationship.

8. Press into relationship: Don’t wait for the mentor to initiate. Learn how to manage up. Persevere. Ask for more of your mentor without demanding it. This doesn’t bother her (at least, it shouldn’t). It honors her. It shouldn’t be a big deal to ask this person to coffee or lunch, outside of your normal meeting time. If a mentor can’t be a friend, then she’s probably not a mentor. Finding ways to solidify the bond you’ve created will only strengthen the relationship. Additional advice: You have to give to get in terms of openness and transparency. A mentor can only help to the degree that you willingly disclose what's going on with you: fears, anxiety's, etc.

9. Ask your mentor for feedback: Feedback can be hard, but it’s good. As your relationship with your mentor progresses, this will be the #1 way you grow. It will be a highlight for the both of you. While asking for feedback may initially feel weird, eventually it will become almost second-nature. You will find yourself thirsting for those words you used to fear. Similarly, a good mentor will treat these times with great care and sensitivity. Additional advice: In intervals you can also provide feedback to your mentor on what parts of their advice are really working for you so they can calibrate and do more of what is making an impact.

10. Commit to the process: You can’t be mentored in a summer. That’s an internship. Mentoring takes real time and real work. In order for it to be a real mentorship, you have to commit to the relationship. Come hell or high water, you’re going to make it work. Then, you will begin to understand what it means to be a student, a disciple, a protege. Additional advice: Pay it forward by compiling what you learned from your mentor and open yourself up to become a mentor as well and help someone else the way your mentor has helped you!

In summary, mentorship is a necessary step in every successful career but it is important to align the situation, your needs, and who you know (or need to get to know). Mentorship is a two-way street but the first step is humility on the part of the mentee and availability and willingness on the part of the mentor. Your mentor is not a psychotherapist or counselor so keep the sessions on topic but be open about things that may be holding you back. Remember that you have experiences that can also enrich your mentor and don't be afraid to pass on your learnings to them as well. Finally, work your way into a position to be of service to others!

I wish you the best of luck in finding the right mentor for you. Fellow mentors, what else would you add to this list of mentorship situations and mentor selection criteria? Potential mentees, what have you gained the most from your mentorship relationships? Let's discuss in the comments below and please like/share this article with your networks!

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