“You need to find a mentor,” is one of the most common refrains I hear directed at ambitious people in the early stages of their careers. Mentorship, simply put, is the relationship between two individuals, one experienced and the other inexperienced. It’s clear to see why this would be a common directive, but that doesn’t mean a fulfilling mentor/mentee relationship is on the way.
Think of it like a flawless cake on Instagram. That gives you a vivid image of the promise of an amazing dish, but if you don’t have the right ingredients and tools to mix those ingredients, then chances are it’ll be the next Pinterest fail.
So what are the ingredients and tools to use for a mutually beneficial mentorship.
A clear-eyed understanding of skill gaps
A focused ask
Commitment to making it easy and mutually beneficial
Step One: Don’t drift. Determine what you are really looking for
There’s a great kids’ book called, “Are You My Mother?” where a newly hatched bird roams around asking a dog, a kitten, a cow and a hen, “Are you my mother? Are you my mother?,” hoping that one of the animals will recognize them and say yes. This is an approach I often see young people use around mentorship. They know they need to check the “mentor box” but haven’t analyzed what they want to get out of the relationship or who would be a good match. So they drift or ask people just to ask them. Not because they’ve determined what they need or who would be the best person for their goals.
Step Two: Is a “mentor” what you really need? Ask yourself if a lighter weight relationship would do the trick
Asking someone to be a “mentor” can put a lot of pressure on a relationship that could just evolve organically. I have never asked someone to mentor me, but I have, for many years, kept in close contact with people I admire and call on them for advice about specific issues. I have never had a circumstance where one of those people was unwilling to talk to me or share their perspective.
Calling someone and saying, ‘Will you be my mentor?’ makes the person on the other end of the phone cringe inside, to be quite candid. They want to say yes, but not if there is no structure to the ask. They are already anticipating the next question, too — “Can we schedule a coffee date?” But why? Put yourself in their shoes. How can they full heartedly agree to a request of this nature when you didn’t think through the request itself?
It’s much more useful if you say something like, “Hey, I’m thinking about transitioning from advertising to digital marketing, and I know that’s something you have a lot of experience with. Would it be okay if I set up some time to ask you a few questions about my transition?” The answer now is far more likely to be a yes, and the meeting will be much more productive. I find people don’t put any rigor or thinking into their mentorship request and then are surprised when it doesn’t yield much.
Step 3: In the give and take of the relationship, be the giver.
When seeking advice, I try to be transparent about what I am hoping to get from my mentor and make it as convenient as possible for them, because they are supporting me. I meet them where they are, in the medium of their choice. An executive with a rigorous travel schedule may not have the time to meet in person, but might be able to chat by phone from an airport. Rather than make the ubiquitous ask for lunch or coffee, I ask very clearly what works best for them.
I also always follow up and let them know what happened if I’ve asked for their advice around a specific issue. In addition to saying thank you, I try to offer some form of value in return for their time. It might be forwarding them an article that’s of interest to them or helping their kid find a summer internship. Whatever it is, the best professional relationships are never one sided.
Learning relationships are powerful and have the potential to be career-impacting when done right. Invest the time up front and it will pay off exponentially.