How do I find a mentor? How do I ask that person to be my mentor? How do I get the most out of a mentoring relationship?
I hear these questions from young professionals all the time. And I can relate because I struggled with all of these things myself.
Striking up a relationship with a potential mentor might seem really awkward, but it doesn’t need to be! Here are 7 keys to finding a mentor I learned from personal experience. Hopefully they can help those of you looking for one yourself!
- Identify a potential mentor.
First, come up with a short list of people you admire and would like to learn from. From there, narrow it down to someone who is of most interest to you.
Years ago, I sat down to contemplate mentor options. Immediately one person came to mind, and you just might know her name: Claire Kittle Dixon.
Claire first popped up on my radar when I was participating in the Koch Associate Program and she spoke to our class. It had been about a year since her session, but she had made an impression on me. If you have heard Claire talk, you know she has a gift for public speaking. She is the right blend of entertaining and informative (with maybe a few curse words tossed in…) and I distinctly remember walking away from her session thinking, “damn, I really want to be her when I grow up.”
But at the time, she didn’t even know who I was. How the heck could I convince someone who didn’t know me to be my mentor? Well, it’s easier than you think!
- Start a conversation.
Beginning a relationship with your mentor shouldn’t feel like an awkward date invitation: “Um, I’m not sure what you’re doing on Saturday night, but will you be my mentor?”
No need to do that! Instead, just reach out to your (future) mentor and ask if you can have a conversation. Tell them you’ve followed their career and admire them, and then ask if they would be willing to connect for 30 minutes.
Here’s how I approached Claire: I kept an eye out for Claire through four days of State Policy Network’s 2016 Annual Meeting. I was naively hoping I’d get her alone for one minute to talk to her. If you’ve ever been to SPNAM, you’re laughing at me thinking I’d be able to accomplish this task. Not only is Claire never alone, but she is also always surrounded by a lot of “higher ups.” But I didn’t want to totally miss my chance! So, on the last evening of SPNAM in a Nashville bar, I approached her (and the large group of fans screaming, taking selfies, and asking for her autograph). I kept it simple! “Hi! My name is Katy. You spoke to my KAP class awhile back and I’d love to connect with you. Could I have your email?” She happily obliged and I quickly backed out of the conversation. I reached out about two weeks later, asking for a phone call. The rest is history!
- Be prepared.
Make sure you have an agenda for the conversation. Know what you want to say, what you want to ask, and in what order. Most importantly, do ample homework in advance so you can spend your time wisely.
With Claire, I made sure to read her bio and LinkedIn page and familiarize myself with her career path. I even pored over the countless pages of advice she had provided on the Talent Market website. I knew that the worst way to make an impression was to waste her time.
- Do more listening than talking.
If your goal to is learn from your mentor, you’ll need to get them talking so you can get busy listening. And in order to do that, you’ll want to come up with the right questions.
Now, I was lucky with Claire because she happened to specialize in career change questions, which I had a lot of. But many of you will be looking for something quite different. Your questions might include: How did you wind up specializing in XXX? ? When did you realize that XXX was the career for you? How did you go from managing a team of 2 to a team of 10? What advice would you give someone in my shoes if my ultimate career goal is X?
Also, don’t immediately demand they help you. Avoid starting with questions like, “Will you give me feedback on my resume?” and “Do you think I’m on the right career path?” These conversations are better left to when you have an established relationship. Not only will a mentor be in a better position to address these questions (as they will know you better), but they will also be happy to help answer them!
- Don’t worry about labeling your relationship.
Hopefully, one conversation with your mentor will lead to another…and another…and another. But at no point along the way do you need to label your relationship.
Indeed, Claire did not even know that I considered her my mentor for several years until she hired me and I referenced her being my mentor. Her response, “I’m your mentor? I had no idea!” So, cast aside trepidation you have about whether a person will “be your mentor.” Instead, focus on starting a conversation with that person and see where it leads.
- Remember this is a two way street.
Your mentor wants to get something out of the relationship too. Because your mentor will almost certainly be more experienced than you, it might be difficult to see how they could possibly derive value from the relationship.
However, don’t underestimate the impact you can have as a mentee. Mentors want to give back. They were once in your shoes and they want to help people get where they are now. Seeing a mentee accomplish the goals you helped them with can be hugely satisfying for a mentor, too.
- Follow-up and show gratitude.
It goes without saying that you should thank your mentor for each and every conversation you have. But you should also show gratitude in the long-run. Let your mentor know the positive impact they are having in your life. And keep them posted on the big decisions that relate to the conversations you’ve had.
Before I wound up working full-time for Claire, she helped me with many things in my career. I always followed up with a thank you email, called her to let her know how things worked out, and just kept in regular contact over the years. That made all of the difference in the world. And, you just never know when you might be able to work with your mentor someday even if it doesn’t necessarily involve getting a job. I invited Claire to speak to a seminar I was planning, and it was great that I was in a position to just call her up and ask her to participate!
So, go forth and find yourself a mentor! While I can’t promise you’ll get your dream job from your mentor (thanks, Claire!), you can make huge strides in your career with your mentor’s help!