Think of the last time you faced a professional crisis: a dearth of clients, salary negotiations, a career switch. Now, imagine how the situation might have improved if you'd had someone to walk you through the steps they took when they were in your shoes.
That's the role good mentors play. They don't provide you with textbook solutions: Instead, they give you a gentle nudge in the right direction.
Sometimes, finding a mentor is a natural process: You lean on a teacher, boss, or coworker for guidance and support. But if you don't have someone in your life who's a clear fit to be your mentor, it doesn't mean you can't have one. This article will offer tips on how to find a mentor, how to approach potential mentors, and how to nurture and maintain the relationship once you've found one.
The Importance of Mentorship
A study conducted by the Association for Talent Development examined formal and informal mentoring programs across different organizations. Of the mentees surveyed:
36% cited professional development as a top benefit
27% cited the development of new perspectives
Julie Remington, a professional coach and the head of Learning and Development at Zapier, agrees with these benefits: "A mentor can introduce you to some of the things you don't know—and that you don't know you don't know—in order to get you to the next stage of your career or professional life."
But she also adds even more benefits—namely the support that mentors provide. She says: "It's great to have someone tell you, 'Oh, I've done that. You can do that. It takes X, Y, and Z skills. You have those skills. Let's talk it out a little more.'" Plus, good mentorships offer a safe place to ask questions, Remington says.
There are, of course, various kinds of mentors. Academic mentors can help steer you toward your ideal career path. And workplace mentors—whether it's your own manager, a more experienced coworker, or a colleague from another department—can guide you through challenges at your specific workplace while also advising you on how to advance in your career at the company.
But there's a kind of mentor that's harder to find—and more important to have: a lifelong mentor. As you juggle opportunities and challenges in your career, lifelong mentors act as an anchor. No matter the company you work for, they'll be able to advise you professionally. And that's the kind of mentorship we'll focus on in this article.
What to Look for in a Mentor
The most fruitful mentoring relationships are based on fit. Your mentor can't be just anyone—they need to be the right person for you. Here are some things you'll want to consider when evaluating prospective mentors.
Professional journey and experience
Your career path should look similar to that of your mentor's, even if it's not exactly the same. For instance, if you work in marketing and aspire to start an agency some day, your mentor should have at least some experience in running a marketing agency. This ensures two things: You won't have to constantly explain the subtleties of your job, and your mentor will be in a better position to guide you once you're ready to take the next step in your career.
But that doesn't necessarily mean you have to find mentors who are far ahead of you in their careers or much older than you. In fact, Jason Fried—co-founder and CEO of Basecamp—recommends approaching people who are only slightly more experienced than you:
If you're starting a brand new business, talk to someone who started theirs a year ago. Or if you're about to hire your first employee, get advice from someone with a two-person company, not 200.
This way, he reasons, you're bound to get more recent and relevant advice.
Professional skills and personal qualities
Along with reviewing their career trajectories, you also want to look for other qualities in mentors, like leadership skills, business acumen, technical knowledge, and endurance. A quick review of prospective mentors' blogs and social media profiles will tell you how willingly they share their knowledge publicly, how actionable their advice is, and what skills they're proud of.
If a prospective mentor is active on LinkedIn, you could also use Emma by Bunch.ai (free on Chrome) to get a quick summary of their personality. There's no guarantee that the results will be accurate, but if the tool believes that the person is collaborative, enjoys coaching, or thrives in a teamwork environment, it's a good sign.
Additionally, for a mentoring relationship to be successful, it's important that you respect your mentor for who they are. Look for qualities that matter to you. Those qualities will be different for everyone, but they might include things like patience, resilience, and honesty. Also, find out how they maintain work-life balance and what their priorities in life are to be sure they match your own. This will help you build a personal rapport with them—and openly share your challenges.
Availability and attentiveness
The last thing to consider in a potential mentor is how busy their professional life is. It doesn't make sense approaching someone who's running two companies at once: They probably don't have the time to commit to you.
Unavailability can also become clear in an initial meeting with your prospective mentor. If your mentor is busy responding to emails during your conversation, they probably aren't going to be willing to provide you with the attention you need for the relationship to be worthwhile.
How to Find a Mentor
Seeing the value of mentorship, some companies create mentoring programs for employees. These can be helpful, but if mentors are randomly assigned, the relationship often fizzles out. Then, there are online platforms like Officehours that help you find experts in your field.
But your conversation with a prospective mentor on Officehours is limited to 10 minutes, making it hard to determine if an ongoing mentorship would be a good fit. So let's look at some other ways to find mentors that are more likely to evolve into lifelong professional relationships.
Look around you
Your current professional network is the best place to start your search for a mentor.
Carol Tang, Director of Online Marketing at InVision, recalls: "Many of my peer relationships have ended up being friendships that have persisted outside of the work environment. These are real relationships—not artificial networking—that I've been able to reach out to for career advice, job opportunities, interview tips, and more."
Think of everyone you've come across at work (or even during interviews), peers you attended school with, and professional groups you're involved in. Maybe there's a manager you looked up to at your previous company or a friend of a friend who's doing remarkable work. These people will not only be easier to approach but also more receptive to your request for help.
Peruse your online network
Online communities are a hotbed of advice on every conceivable topic. They also happen to be a good place to meet potential mentors.
You might already have a network, no matter how tiny, on platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, Slack, or Quora. Start there. Look for people in your field who regularly share their experiences, engage in discussions, and spend time helping others. Also, check out their blog to see what kind of content they share. If they share actionable, helpful advice online, chances are they'll be willing to do so in person too.
Share your own learnings
Finding a mentor when you work for yourself can be particularly difficult—and particularly important—because you don't necessarily have a pool of colleagues to reach out to for help and advice. For this reason, freelance writer Jessica Greene recommends sharing your learnings online to help others in your field.
"People appreciate when you share what you've learned, and sometimes they'll reach out to you for more information," Greene says. "I've had people offer to pay me for my help, but I never accept the offer. Instead, I tell them I'm happy to help for free because I have some questions of my own that I'd like to ask another freelance writer."
Using this process, you can actually develop a sort of co-mentorship. Instead of one person primarily guiding the other, you're both helping each other with the specific things each of you has more experience with.
When looking for a mentor, you need to be a doer, not a passive onlooker.
I found my first writing mentor as a result of submitting a sample for critique to an online writing school. When the CEO of the school wrote back with suggestions, I asked if I could volunteer as a writer with their newsletter, and thus began our relationship. Over the next few years, we discussed everything from writing and publishing to our personal goals and milestones.
The more initiatives you take up, the more a potential mentor is likely to notice you. Start side projects, volunteer your time, or use your talents to help people in your community.
SCORE is a platform designed to connect mentees with mentors. In addition to offering courses and webinars on topics of importance to small business owners, SCORE has a network of more than 11,000 people who've signed up to volunteer their time to mentor other small business owners.
SCORE is unique because you're not necessarily restricted to having video chats with mentors in its network—though that option is available. You can also request a mentor who lives near you if you prefer to meet with people in person.
Attend industry events
Big events can be intimidating, but there are ways to make it easier to approach and meet potential mentors. If you're going to a business conference, consider signing up as a volunteer, and you might get a chance to interact with the speakers. If you're going to a networking event, consider bringing an extroverted friend who's not afraid to approach strangers.
How to Approach Potential Mentors
Once you've found someone you'd love to have as a mentor, you still need to get them on board. You might be tempted to fire off an email to a potential mentor, asking them to "mentor you," but a little relationship building goes a long way. Instead, ask to meet them informally a couple of times to get to know them better. Or if they're part of your online network, leave thoughtful replies on their content to get the conversation started.
Remember, some people get hundreds of requests each day for their help and expertise. The key is to get them to remember you so you stand out from a pile of cold email requests.
Relationship building has another major advantage. Remember those professional and personal attributes we spoke about earlier? Now's the time to fill in the blanks and get to know your mentor as closely as possible. You want to make sure they fit the bill before you go any further.
Make the right ask
Once you're well-acquainted with a potential mentor, it's time to send them a quick email asking for a meeting. Again, avoid leading with "Will you be my mentor?" As Michael Hyatt points out: "That's like asking someone to marry you on the first date." Instead, your first email should simply focus on securing an initial meeting.
Whitnie Low Narcisse, lead of advisory programs at First Round, recommends this template:
Hey, I'm trying to get through [specific situation or challenge], and I've heard from several people, [name warm, respected mutual connections here], that you might be able to provide some insight or direction in this area. Might you have time to meet for coffee?
The above note is clear and succinct: It lets them know who you are, why you need to meet, and that you won't take up too much of their time. A small ask like this is easy to say yes to.
Be sure to mention how they know you and that you'll only be taking 30 minutes of their time. Your initial meeting may last longer than 30 minutes, and if it does, take that as a positive sign. At the end of the meeting, ask your mentor if they would be open to meeting regularly.
How to Nurture and Maintain Relationships with Mentors
Now that you're done with the tricky part—finding and approaching a mentor—it's time for the fun part—nurturing the relationship. Here are a few ways you can do that.
Don't only talk about work
You may have approached a mentor to get professional direction, but simply discussing work will make your conversations stilted and formal. Instead, you want to spend some time understanding each other's personal choices and priorities.
Discuss your personal aspirations, how you like to spend your weekends, and your thoughts on work-life balance. This will keep the discussion light and candid.
A regular cadence for meetings ensures you don't lose touch with your mentor for too long. More importantly, it's the best way to measure progress and track goals.
While a predictable schedule is key, it shouldn't be inflexible, and your meetings shouldn't be too frequent. For instance, when we asked Alyssa Rapp, CEO of Surgical Solutions and managing partner at AJR Ventures, how she keeps in touch with mentors, she said it was through "frequent (quarterly or semi-annual) email check-ins, and at least annual, if not bi-annual, live check-ins." Loose guidelines around keeping in touch work better than a rigid schedule.
Also, understand your mentor is busy, and be willing to work around their schedule. As Rapp says, "I'm always willing to fly, drive, train, space ship—whatever it takes to show up at a time/place convenient to a mentor since he/she is doing me the favor to make the meeting in the first place."
Respect your mentor's time, and they will respect you for it.
Set an agenda
Scheduled meetings will only work if both of you come prepared with what to discuss. Take the time to plan an agenda for every meeting and share it with your mentor in advance. This allows your mentor to think about the issues you'll be dissecting.
It's possible you're juggling many challenges at once, but be sure to pick one or two major issues and focus your discussion around these. This allows your conversations to be deep and meaningful, rather than meandering in multiple directions.
And when presenting your mentor with a problem, don't expect them to give you a solution. Instead, allow them to share their own experiences and how they would approach similar issues, and then look at the problem from a fresh perspective.
Share goals and results
At the beginning of every meeting, take a few minutes to review your progress. Have you implemented the solutions you discussed in your last meeting? What steps have you completed so far? This helps you track results and shows your mentor you value their time and expertise.
Similarly, at the end of every meeting, set a few concrete goals to accomplish by the next time you meet. If possible, make a list of action items to reach your goals so you don't feel overwhelmed.
Give; don't just take
While a mentor-mentee relationship is hardly a transactional give and take, it's important to express your gratitude every opportunity you get. There are many ways to give back to your mentor, even though you may be a beginner and several years junior to them.
Don't just mull over your problems in every meeting; be sure to ask your mentors what's going on with them at work and in life. What challenges are they dealing with at the moment? Is there something you can help with?
Perhaps you're exceptionally good with writing, coding, or designing and can volunteer your talents for a project. Maybe you can provide them with a referral or an introduction. Another beginner's advantage you may have is expertise with technology your mentor doesn't know much about. No matter what, always look for ways you can offer help.
If nothing else, remember: The most valuable thing you might be able to offer your mentor is a fresh perspective. As Jason Fried rightly shared with us, "The beginner's mindset is so valuable. Once you lose it, it's gone forever. A mentee can help the mentor see through brand new eyes again."