Many successful business women cite finding a mentor as a key factor in their success and some studies show we have a harder time finding a mentor than men do. While we’d all love to have a cup of coffee with a high-flying CEO and learn from her experience, that may be out of reach for many of us.
So how do you find the right mentor and ask for help? The right mentor should be someone who can give you specific honest feedback about particular work areas, help you refine a skill, or get out of your comfort zone. Here are six tips to help you find the perfect mentor.
1. Identify a professional gap.
Let’s first clear up what a mentor is not. Your mentor isn’t your life guru or someone so senior to you that their experience isn’t relevant for your career right now. Instead, think about seeking a mentor to help fill a specific gap in skills or professional persona. Could you use help speaking in front of a crowd? Brainstorming about your next career move? Getting feedback on your product proposals? Finding the right mentor starts with some solid self-reflection on what it is you want to improve. Investing time up front will lead to a successful search.
Finding the right mentor starts with some solid self-reflection on what it is you want to improve.
A variety of professional tools can help you think through these gaps and help you objectively identify where you should focus your efforts in seeking a mentor. For example, if you work in a team you might take some time to complete a 360 degree skills assesment where colleagues, managers, and people who report to you can give anonymous feedback on their perception of your work strengths and weaknesses. Other tools can include taking some time to self-assess every day for a set period of time and keep a journal of your work practices, taking note of incidents where you feel like you excelled and places where you think you could use some additional development.
2. Scan your existing network.
Now that you know what you’re after, scan your network and make a list of contacts you think would be willing to spend some time on these issues with you. A mentor is not usually among new contacts. In the case of mentorship, you want people who are already familiar with your work style, skill level, and personality. Review your list and ask yourself whose leadership or work you admire. Which of these people overcame similar challenges or have a career you aspire to? These relationships go to the top of the “ask” list!
The first female CEO of GM, Mary Barra has explained this idea well- “Work really hard and you earn people who are willing to support you because they see how hard you are working and are willing to extend a bit of their personal social capital.” That social capital piece is key to actually achieving your objective from a mentoring relationship. Drawing from your existing network of colleagues means that those you’re reaching out to will likely have some degree of vested interest in your personal success, and be more willing to spend the time and effort it will take to help you achieve your professional goals.
3. Think outside your current company.
Your list of potential mentors should include people outside of your company and, even better, outside of your industry. Sometimes the best way to get fresh perspective on soft skills are to reach out to those who don’t have the same work background and can offer a different perspective. It may also make sense for you to have multiple mentors for different needs—making it even more useful to draw contacts from diverse backgrounds.
Finding mentors outside of your company is a great way to get career guidance and objectivity that your own management might lack.
According to Jo Miller, CEO of Be Leaderly, a women’s coaching organization, attending industry seminars can be a great way to expand your network and begin to create relationships that may eventually lead to mentoring possibilities. She suggests that finding mentors outside of your company is a great way to get career guidance and objectivity that your own management chain might lack.
4. Ask for action, not for a role.
Now that you know what you’d like from a mentor, have a concise and thoughtful “ask” teed up! Focus on mentoring as an action, rather than a role. This sets a clear expectation for your contact (and goes over well when coupled with a genuine compliment).
For example, instead of asking: “Will you be my mentor?” Rather, address the specific skills you need to grow and how you’d like to accomplish this. Perhaps, “I noticed how well you handled the crowd in your speech at the conference last month and improving my public speaking skills is something I’d really like to work on. Over the next three months, would you be willing to meet to assist me in practicing a presentation I need to give at the end of the summer?”
5. Accept a decline gracefully.
If your selectee declines, do not worry! Not everyone has the time and energy to devote to mentorship. Make the best of the conversation by asking thoughtful, targeted questions about the topic you’re interested in and be sure to thank her for her time. Stay in touch to show there are no hard feelings about declining your request. Depending on the relationship, you might also want to ask if they have a recommendation within your shared network that might be appropriate for you to reach out to instead.
Focus on mentoring as an action, rather than a role.
This can be a particularly great solution if time is a limiting factor for who you asked. Asking for essentially a “referral” also helps you better understand the skill sets and capabilities of people that you may not be considering. You might find out that you hadn’t known a mutual colleague attempted just the career change or skill advancement you are considering!
6. Always follow up promptly.
If your contact agrees to your mentoring proposal, be sure to promptly follow-up and stay in touch in a way that works for you both. The idea here is to be sure that you are establishing an enhanced aspect of your relationship with this person, but following up consistently without being a pest! If you agreed to in-person meetings, remain flexible on scheduling and be sure to offer a variety of times and places that are convenient.
With a mentor’s help, you’ll soon be polishing your skills and growing a career tool kit!