Finding a Mentor, Made Easy

Part 3 of 4 in the series Finding a Mentor

How on earth do I get someone to be my mentor?”

This seems like a big hurdle, doesn’t it?

When I encourage clients to find a mentor, I can hear the mental brakes screech to a halt in front of the roadblock called It’s Too Much To Ask. As in, it’s too much to ask someone I really admire to give me his or her time and free advice.

And they’re right. At least, the way people typically approach mentoring.

But, there is one easy, important way to make finding a great mentor more likely (and asking more comfortable). Just remember this:

Be a farmer, not a hunter

How does a farmer get a great harvest? She plows the field, she sows the seeds. She waters, she weeds, she fertilizes, she waits. Only after the crops have had plenty of time to grow does she harvest the delightful vegetables.

In short, the successful farmer gives quite a bit to the soil and crops before he sees the results.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

A great mentoring relationship grows rather organically (pun intended) out of a relationship that has already been nurtured. And in case you hadn’t guessed, you (the potential mentee) are the farmer. It’s up to you, my friend, to initiate the nurturing.

(Now, this is not to imply any criticism of hunting, either actual hunting or metaphorical hunting. After all, when we’re looking for a job we go “job hunting.” It’s just that farming is the metaphor I encourage you to use for developing a mentoring relationship. You don’t go out and “get” one that already exists; you create it from the seed of a relationship.)

So back to farming. Let’s take a peek at what this actually looks like when seeking a mentor. Although there is no “playbook,” there are guiding principles to this approach. They are:

1. Look first for potential mentors within the network you already have.

People who know you should know what great things you are capable of, and you have already done some of the groundwork of nurturing there relationships.

Once you have taken stock of the kind of mentoring you need (see here for my article on this), you can look around at your social network for someone who has the skills and experience to help you grow.

One tip: Pick someone who is already 10 steps ahead of you in their own career, at least in the area you need mentoring.

2. If you want to approach someone you don’t already know, develop a basic relationship FIRST.

Is there someone you don’t know personally, but have a mentor-crush on? It’s still possible to end up with this person as your mentor. But, like dating, it’s important to approach this person gradually, and (again) nurture the relationship as a give-and-take. Have conversations. Develop trust. And, when possible, offer to do something meaningful and genuinely helpful for the other person first. (See below.)

One tip: If your mentor-crush is someone quite famous, either nationally or just in your particular field, chances are that they are already swamped with requests to be a mentor. This will make it fairly unlikely that they will be able to say “yes” to you (although not impossible…). Consider how hard you are willing to work to get a mentor, and choose a potential mentor accordingly.

3. Follow the 3-1 rule.

Can you count three ways you have given to your potential mentor, before you ask for help? If not, you may not have nurtured the relationship enough.

This giving could be all sorts of things. Perhaps you’ve connected them with someone else that helps their career. Perhaps you’ve sent them an article or link, or even a client referral. Perhaps you’ve done them a favor. Perhaps you’ve simply been a good listener, and showed that you care about their world and their concerns.

4. Prove yourself worthy of their commitment first.

Chances are if you consider person X a great potential mentor, others do too. Even if you do have a relationship with this person, they may be getting multiple requests to be a mentor. In a way, you need to audition for the “job” of mentee.

Does this seem strange? Consider it from your potential mentor’s perspective: they are volunteering their time; they are probably already pretty busy. Their main ROI (return on investment) is the sense of satisfaction they’ll get from helping someone succeed. So, they will be more inclined to mentor someone who looks likely to succeed with their help.

You don’t need to stand on your head and juggle (unless that’s your talent). But, you do need to show your potential mentor your talent and potential. Ask yourself the following. If you can’t say yes to these questions, consider upping your game for a while before asking.

  • Do I walk my talk around this person?
  • Do I keep my commitments (including being on time)?
  • Do I act professionally around this person, and others they associate with?
  • Have they witnessed or experienced my finest work to date?
  • Have I shown initiative, and a willingness to be a contribution, around this person?
  • Would this person feel confident that I am a person who willingly takes (and uses) feedback from others?

5. Start with a more specific and limited request.

A great way to start is by saying you admire their work/accomplishments and want to learn more about what they do (or how they got to where they are). Could you buy them a coffee and pick their brain a bit? If so, set a time limit (say, 30 or 60 minutes or whatever they can manage) and stick to it like glue. Be sure to pay for the coffee.

This is your basic informational interview. Come prepared with some questions, ones that show you’ve done your homework (i.e., don’t ask anything you could have easily learned from their website or other readily available materials.) Take notes if you like, and strike a conversational tone. Be personable, interested, open.

Tip #1: Make sure you invite them to tell their story. It will show interest in them as a person (not just as a tool to help you) and will also yield unexpected ways to find common ground between you. For example, you could ask:

  • So how did you get into this field/industry/business?
  • What do you like best about what you do?
  • What’s been your biggest challenge, and how did you overcome it?

You may not have time to ask lots of these sorts of questions. However, asking at least one is a very valuable use of your time.

Tip #2: You should mostly listen during an informational interview. However, since you are also hoping the relationship will continue, look for small windows to share things about yourself that will (a) show common ground and (b) provide evidence for the questions asked in #4, above. Limit your comments to between 30 seconds and two minutes each, unless your coffee-mate asks for more.

Tip #3: Be looking, also, for ways that you can help the person you are interviewing (the 3-1 rule). If you think of things, mention them briefly (“That makes me think of an article you may like, can I send it to you later today?”) and return to your format. Obviously, follow through on what you promise (this will speak volumes about you as a potential mentee).

So, basically you are on a “first date” with this person. If it seems to be going well, and by that I mean the other person is engaged and you seem to click, ask for a second “date.” By this I mean one of two things: (1) ask if you can meet them again for another chat, in a month or two, or (2) ask if they would be willing to help you with a specific issue or project. (“Would you be willing to give me feedback on my demo tape/blog/brochure/etc.?”)

If you already have a decent relationship with this person, it may make more sense to start with this request, rather than the informational interview. As I said, these are guiding principles, not a playbook. At any rate, the point is to start with a specific and limited request.

6. Baby steps, baby.

Keep asking, and giving; after a while you may have a mentoring relationship without ever uttering the phrase, “Will you be my mentor?” If the relationship is strong enough, or if the person seems interested in mentoring, you may actually formalize the relationship with this question. However, it may develop without it just fine.

Will you need to keep up the 3-1 rule, after this? Yes – but it will look somewhat different. At this point, part of your “giving” is (1) being enthusiastically open to receiving feedback or advice, (2) showing that you have the initiative to act on their advice and create results, and (3) showing how much you appreciate their investment in you with thank you notes and the like. Providing direct value like networking referrals will only be part of the mix (albeit still an important one).

7. If the answer is no, let it go.

Remember that “no” is a gift as well. In the long run, that person would not have had their heart in it. Look for the person who is enthusiastic and willing.

Good luck! Let me know how it goes.