Envision this: A successful person whom you admire takes time out of their busy schedule to share the highs and lows of their career journey, providing guidance as you navigate your own career path. That’s what mentorship is all about-highlighted in the month of January as it marks National Mentoring Month.
The right mentoring relationship can be a powerful tool for professional growth —leading to a new job, a promotion or even a better work-life balance.
One of the difficult factors to navigate when seeking a mentor is that it’s often informal, and that can make it tricky to find a starting point. Since we know that women and people of color face discrimination at higher rates than white men do in certain fields like STEM, it can be especially helpful for women and people of color to intentionally seek out mentors.
Here’s how to find a good mentor, make the ask, and develop an official mentorship to take you to the next level.
1. Finding the Right Mentor
Know your goals (both short and long term).
Consider your short-term and long-term goals and assess where a mentor would best meet your goals. Depending on whether you are looking to grow in your field, or break into a new one, align these factors with your search for the right mentor. The more specific you are with your goals, the easier it will be to find the mentor that will be the most valuable to you. One strategy to develop impactful, easily attainable goals is to work SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timebound. Imagining your dreams this way allows you to break down lofty ideas into individual goals that are easier to manage and achieve through short-term steps.
Who do you look up to?
Whose career path would you like to emulate? Is this person inside or outside your workplace? Are they an entrepreneur? Who is your immediate role model where you work? Maintain a running list of the jobs and people you are visualizing. Consider an identity-based mentor in your organization, especially if you need to discuss issues you’re facing as an underrepresented person in your professional surroundings.
Do the research. You may or may not be able to ask one of those people to be your mentor, but what are the stepping stones to get to someone in a similar position? Take notes on the path that person took to get to where they are today.
Tap into your current network. The more aware someone already is of your work and abilities, the more effective they will be at mentoring you. Think about whether someone is already informally mentoring you — can you ask them to help you? If someone isn’t aware of your work or you’ve never talked to them, look for a connection. Make sure the person you are thinking about also has the expertise you’re looking for.
Recognize the difference between a mentor and a sponsor. For example, mentors give advice on but can’t give you a new job, raise, or promotion. In contrast, sponsors can do that for you. They can be a boss, recruiter, or even employer in a new industry. Don’t expect mentors to be sponsors, but they can put you in touch with sponsors. Mentors can also be in your life for the long-term, while sponsors are often more short-term.
2. Making the Ask
Have an elevator pitch ready. Be concise about your goals and why you think this person is the right mentor for you. Be clear about your time-commitment, what you’re willing to put into the relationship and what you expect from them. If you’re clear about what you need from the start, communication will flow smoothly. Practice this elevator pitch to other people before asking the possible mentor.
Make sure it’s the right fit before asking. You can feel this out by having informal meetups where you discuss your goals and trajectory, prior to asking them to be your mentor.
Mention what you like about the person’s work, especially if you’ve never met. Take the initiative to research the possible mentor’s work and open with what you like about their work. That will reflect effort on your end and demonstrate that you have a planned approach.
If it’s a cold email, start with the informational interview ask. Be specific about what you like about the person’s work and why you want to meet. Why is talking to you worth their time? If you’ve never met before, consider starting with a phone call and work with the person’s schedule. Keep in mind that informational interview requests are common. The way you stand out, as we mentioned before, is showing you did the research about their career and being specific and honest about what you’re asking of them.
Here are some things to mention:
- Mention specifically what you’ve gotten out of prior conversations with them. (This might be from that first informal meeting.)
- Be clear about how often you want to meet for and how long, and make sure it works for them. (You can reassess this later in the relationship.)
- Mention you’ll put together agendas prior to each meeting that align with the goals discussed above.
- Finally, make sure they are considering this mentorship as an option and not an obligation. We’re all busy, and you should approach the ask fully aware they might say no. And that’s okay! If they do say no, mention you admire their path and thank them for considering. That leaves the door open for a future relationship.
3. Tips on Being a Good Mentee
So you’ve found the right mentor. Now what?
Goals still matter. If you mention your distinct, achievable goals from the beginning of the relationship, your mentor can assist you in staying on track at each meeting.
Meet regularly. Determine out how often (i.e. once a week or once a month over four to six months), how long (i.e. half hour or one hour), how you want to meet and make it consistent. Video conference is a good start so that you can get to know each other better. Gradually progress to phone calls once you’re comfortable. Decide whether you or your mentor want to send out calendar invites to protect the time you plan to meet. This might mean keeping your supervisor in the loop.
Set an agenda. Prior to each meeting, send your mentor an agenda —setting the framework for what you may want to read with your mentor, a new project you’ve worked on and want feedback on or indicate that you’re trying to ask for a promotion or raise.
Be open to feedback: positive or constructive. Sometimes it can be hard to take a compliment or look back and appreciate your own work. In the same vein, be open to criticism
Take notes as you meet so that you can follow up via email. That will help a busy mentor stay on track and know what to focus on with you over the course of your relationship.
Determine an end date. Based on how long those short-term goals will take to achieve, decide how long you want the mentorship relationship to last. A good rule of thumb is usually four to six months, with the option to keep meeting informally.
This relationship is not a therapy session. Be mindful to make and maintain boundaries. We are human, and often personal issues will come into play during your sessions, especially if you have a pre-existing relationship or are talking about work-life balance. It’s okay to vent. But make sure not to dominate the session with personal issues or make it all about venting.
Finally, consider establishing a board of mentors. They say it takes a village-No one mentor can help you achieve all of your goals. Maybe one mentor can help you consider a path to leadership because they are a supervisor. Maybe another can help with technical skills specific to making a job change. Another mentor may be aware of your skill set and could turn into a sponsor down the line. There is no limit to the number of mentors you accumulate as you advance through your professional career. Even if a formal mentorship period ends, keep these mentors in your life and updated of your achievements and downfalls. They can be a guide when you’re uncertain and will feel appreciated that they aided in getting you to the place you’re at in your career. Win-win!