I get this question all the time, especially from young professionals who are craving guidance and wisdom as they start their professional journeys. But this isn’t just about young adults. We all want and need mentorship. We all want and need someone to pull us aside and to help us on our journey. And the lucky ones, the high potentials and the super stars, get it. This is one of the problems with informal mentoring relationships: we tend to seek out mentees who remind us of ourselves, which means the other folks, the ones who could probably really use the mentoring, get left out. Also, informal mentoring relationships lack the oversight that can mitigate some of the problems that can arise when relationships go off the rails. Many organizations have started to implement formal mentoring programs to address these issues (and others); the problem with these programs is that the matches often feel unnatural and over-structured and the relationships never really develop the way that they should.
So how, as a mentee, do you go about finding mentors? How do you ask someone to serve as a mentor to you so that it is a productive relationship? Here are a few tips to consider:
- Check your intentions. Why are you seeking a mentor, and more specifically, why are you seeking this mentor? Mentoring relationships are goal-oriented relationships, and that means you need to set some goals for yourself that you are willing to pursue, whether or not the mentoring relationship happens. You have to do the work. Before you think about who is best positioned to help you achieve your goals, you need to have some goals. And those goals do not include, well he’s the CEO and I just think he would have a lot to offer me in terms of wisdom and experience. Of course he would! But that doesn’t give him a reason to mentor you. Remember: you are asking someone to give up their time, their most precious commodity, to benefit you. Be intentional about why you are asking them to do so and why they should begin to consider it.
- Pay attention. It is quite possible that you are already in a mentoring relationship with someone, but you just have not recognized that it was happening. While most effective mentoring relationships set formal parameters for the relationship and the work – what goals will you be working on together, how long and how often will you meet as mentoring partners, when will you know to bring the relationship to a close – many informal mentoring relationships evolve more organically than this. It is only after the fact that we are able to look back and recognize the impact that another person had on our growth and development. Wouldn’t it have been so much more impactful of you could have taken advantage of that relationship at the time that you were in it? Pay attention to the relationships that you are already forming with the people around you and think about how you might make them more productive.
- Be honest about your needs. Are you looking for a coach or a mentor? Coaching is about skill development, and forward progress on goals. Mentoring has an expectation of a deeper, ongoing relationship. Are you willing to put in the work to build that deeper relationship with a mentor, or do you need coaching? Do you sense that the potential mentor is willing and able to put in that time, with you? Or, would coaching be a less burdensome ask? Or, do you really just need some advice on a specific problem at this moment in time? Be honest with yourself and with the other person about what you are actually asking him or her to provide to you.
- Broaden your network. We tend to look to the most senior, most accomplished people as potential mentors, but just because someone has a great resume it does not mean he or she will be a great mentor to you. Time and again the research has shown that the best mentor is the one who is willing and able to invest the time in you and the mentoring relationship. Being in a “mentoring relationship” with a senior executive who never has time to meet with you is neither mentoring nor a relationship. Don’t forget your peers and people outside of your organization when you are considering potential mentors. If no one immediately comes to mind, then be prepared to do the hard work to develop relationships with people. Your mentor does not need to be your best friend before you start. But he or she should be someone with whom you feel comfortable being honest, and who you trust will be honest with you.
- Make the ask. Once you have clarified your intentions, set some goals that you are willing to work on, gotten honest about your needs, and looked at your network for someone with whom you feel comfortable, just make the ask. Share your goals and what you are asking for, both in terms of time and effort. Be reasonable: set a timeframe of no more than six months, to start. But at some point you just have to ask for what you need. If they say no, respect their answer, and say thank you and move on. If they say yes, say thank you and get ready to do the work.