Want a Mentor? Five Questions to Ask Yourself First

Part 1 of 4 in the series Finding a Mentor

Have dreams of finding the perfect mentor? You’re not alone. Many people want a mentor, and with good reason. Mentors can help us avoid the potholes in the road, make those big leaps of faith a lot less scary, and help our careers go farther, easier. As a career coach I highly recommend that you find one if you can.

But first: you need to prepare a bit. Asking someone to mentor you is somewhat like going steady: it’s a commitment of the head and heart, for you and for that person. They are going to give their time and their emotional energy to your success. You want to make sure it’s right for both of you.

So here are five questions to ask yourself. Give them some thought; brainstorm your ideas to each one first, then polish them down into short answers you could give to someone if they asked.

(1) What are my top mentoring needs?

Why this is important:

  • Mentors need motivation. How clear you are on what you need, and how big the scope of your need is, may influence whether someone says “yes.” Potential mentors will want to believe they can be successful giving you what you need before they’ll say yes (let’s be honest, why would they bother otherwise?).
  • Time is precious to mentors. If you can show that you’ve thought this through, the other person will be more confident that you are worth the investment of their commitment.
  • YOU may need several mini-mentors. You may discover that you need one person to mentor you on topic X and another person to mentor you on topic Y. (See my upcoming article on mini-mentors for more on this.)

How to do it: Ask yourself...

  1. Why, exactly, do I need a mentor?
  2. What do I hope to learn?
  3. What are my overall goals and dreams, and how am I hoping a mentor will help me get there?
  4. Do I need a mentor to help me learn skills specific to my trade, to create networking opportunities for me, to help me work on my personal skills (such as confidence, appearance, or elevator pitch), or something else?
  5. From all this, what are my top one or two needs this year?

(2) What kind of person am I willing to take advice from?

Why this is important: Part of being mentored is allowing your mentor to tell you to do things differently. But our egos are pretty attached to who we are right now, so it can be easier to take this counsel from some people than others.

Think about all the people you've worked with and you'll probably find examples on both sides. Personally, I've had supervisors, colleagues, clients, even staff on my own team that could give me constructive criticism in a way that I readily accepted. On the other hand, there have been one or two people over the years who's feedback I always resisted (even if they were sometimes spot on).

Why is this?

A lot of it has to do with delivery. For example, if someone approaches me with a tone that says, I'd like to help you out by drawing your attention to this, I find I am much more open to the information.  I prefer information (when you do X, the result if often Y) over judgement (you're making the wrong choice). I also prefer a person who is willing to make me a partner in crafting the new course of action, rather than simply telling me what to do.

Bottom line: While you can learn to accept feedback from anyone - and in fact that's a good workplace skill - it's ideal to choose a mentor whose style naturally fits your own. Since this is a relationship based on goodwill (rather than payment), the better it feels, the more you both will invest over time.

What kind of mentor are you willing to take advice from?

How to do it: Try thinking about a person in your life that you have liked getting advice from in the past. What about this person’s approach or way of being made it so enjoyable or accessible for you? Be as specific as you can.

(3) How do I prefer to receive feedback and advice?

Why this is important: This is more about the delivery method than the tone. Some delivery methods are more comfortable for us, while others are jarring. And once again, this varies from person to person. We tend to deliver feedback to others in the way we ourselves would prefer to receive it.

Read that twice; if you remember nothing else from this article, remember that! You can’t expect your mentor to know what you need and magically deliver feedback in the way you prefer. So, you need to either (a) pick a mentor whose preference matches your own or (b) teach your mentor how you prefer to receive feedback.

How to know? Try this:

How to do it: Write down the answers to each of these questions:

  1. Do you want feedback in person, or in written form so you can consider it privately before talking to your mentor?
  2. Do you want it in-the-moment as it occurs to your mentor, or do you want to schedule a time for it so you can feel “ready?”
  3. Do you want feedback to be offered, unsolicited, or do you want the person to wait until you ask?
  4. Do you want direct advice, or do you simply want the person to tell you their experience, letting you draw you own conclusions?
  5. Do you want theory and research (“this is how 80% of startups market their businesses”), or do you want step-by-step, how-to advice?

Special note: You may not know the answer to these questions, yet. (I find that many people cannot recall having gotten good, solid, constructive feedback to consider as a model.) If this is the case, ask a potential mentor how they prefer to deliver feedback, and see how it sits with you. You might also let your mentor know you are still learning about this, and ask if it’s okay to state your preferences as they become clearer.

(4) What are my core values?

Why this is important: If you are going to feel that you mentor is steering you in the right direction, you need to share a significant number of core values with this person, because values influence every decision we make. Your mentor’s counsel needs to steer you in the direction of your core values, not away from them.

For example, let’s say you are expanding your business, and will need a few employees. If you listed “flat, egalitarian organization structure” and “decisions by consensus” as core values, but your mentor values a more hierarchical, the-boss-is-always-right structure, the advice this person gives you in this realm will not be a fit for you. (And vice versa.)

Interesting tidbit: Once you answer this question, you will notice that it affects the answer to the other four. For example, people I readily accept advice from tend to have collaboration and consensus as core values - like me.

So…what are your top five core values?

How to do it: Brainstorm a list, then prioritize your top five. Also, see if you can separate them into personal values and work or business-specific values. (If you are having trouble with this, let me know. I have a great method and can help you develop your values list in two coaching sessions.)

Important: Remember that your potential mentor may not have a polished list any more than you do at this moment. They may need some time to articulate their own if they have never been asked to do so before. So, put it out there as a question (“Hey, are we a fit?”) rather than a test (“Are you good enough for me?”). This is just professional courtesy and good karma, regardless of whether the mentoring part takes off or not.

(5) What are some of the ways I can give back to my mentor?

Why this is important: As I’ll talk about in another article, it’s important to give back to your mentor in whatever way you genuinely can. This builds goodwill and will help both of you to feel that the relationship is a partnership. Sometimes, a mentoring relationship starts when you offer to help the person you want as a mentor.

How to do it: Of course, you won’t know exactly how you can give back until the relationship unfolds. For example, you may realize you can connect your mentor to someone you know to help them, only after they share an issue they are working on. Or, you may come across an article down the road that you realize they would like.

For now, just generate a generic list of possibilities. What skills do you have? What topics do you know about? What kind of network do you have? Where have you helped people before? This list will prime the pump – and get you in the mindset of looking for ways to help your mentor.

Final Thoughts:

Doing a little self-study is an important way to prepare yourself for the mentoring experience. You’ll be more likely to ask the right person, to get their willingness to be a mentor, and to make the most of the time you have together. With a little preparation, and the right approach, you can create a rich, rewarding mentoring relationship that benefits you both and lasts for years to come.

Let me know how it goes, okay?