Whether you’re just starting out, transitioning to a new profession or ready to take your career to the next level, a mentor can serve as an invaluable asset. By offering their expertise, a fresh perspective and unbiased advice, career mentors can help nudge you in the right direction and help dismantle old ways of thinking.
But asking somebody to sacrifice valuable time and energy can seem daunting, especially if you barely know them. How do you find the ideal mentor and avoid feeling awkward when asking for their help? Here are some tips:
Know What You Want
It’s no good to randomly solicit people in high places. You need to go about it thoughtfully. Begin by figuring out what you want, first in your career then in a mentor.
Often the best candidates aren’t the ones in the most illustrious positions. A good mentor is someone who really wants to help and is clever and articulate enough to offer useful advice. This could be someone who was recently promoted from your position and has insight into getting to the next level. Sometimes a good mentor is somebody in a different field altogether, but who possesses the characteristics and people skills to succeed.
Once you’ve defined your career goals and steps to reach them, it will be easier to identify people who possess the qualities and knowledge you’d like to emulate.
Approach Someone You Know
This isn’t a hard and fast rule. There may be plenty of times when you come across generous spirits willing to devote time and effort to someone just starting out. But in general, you’ll have better luck asking somebody you already know. Not only will they feel more inclined to say yes and be helpful, they’ll also have a better sense of who you are.
Ask For Advice Not Help
Make sure your expectations are realistic. The purpose of a mentor is to help you find a job indirectly, not directly. In other words, they’re imparting their knowledge to you for your professional benefit. Like the old adage says, rather than giving you a fish, they’re teaching you how to fish. If they happen to have valuable contacts or referrals that can help you get a job, great! This is an indirect advantage of finding a suitable mentor, not the sole purpose.
Additionally, you’ll find it easier (and get a better response) if you specifically ask for advice rather than for help. If someone feels admired rather than used, they’ll be more motivated to help.
Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket
One person can’t possibly fulfill all your needs. Diverse points of view are always a boon to productivity. Therefore, it’s wise to seek counsel from several people. Not only does this take the pressure off of potential mentors, it also improves your chances of success.
Once you’ve clarified your career goals, create a list of people who seem like a good fit. Pinpoint the particular qualities that you admire in each person. Once know this, you have a good reason for asking them to mentor you.
Be specific rather than general. For example, instead of asking someone for advice on how to become a manager or an art director you could say, “I love the way you bring people together on a team. Can you advise me on ways to improve my leadership skills.” Or, “I’m floored by your imaginative designs. Would you feel comfortable talking to me about your creative process?” In each case, flattery will get you everywhere.
Map it Out
After you’ve requested a meeting with a potential mentor—either by inviting them to lunch or simply meeting them at work—be prepared to clearly spell out what you’d like from them. The last thing a mentor wants is to feel that they’re committed for an indefinite period. Are you looking for a formal or more informal arrangement – for example, advice on an “as-needed” or in a regular meeting once or twice a month? The details will differ with each mentor and your relationships with them.
Know your objectives and try to envision and articulate an end-point. And most importantly, don’t forget to show gratitude, both during and after the process. If all goes as planned, you may be fortunate enough to repay the debt in the future when you find yourself in the mentor’s shoes.