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How to Find Great Mentors

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Every professional, from a new college grad to a CEO, can benefit from having mentors. No matter what field you're in, good mentors can help you learn new skills, meet new people and approach challenges from different perspectives. In this tutorial, discover how to connect with potential mentors and proven ways to establish productive, mutually-fulfilling relationships.

How Can Mentors Help You?

Finding good mentors is hard. It takes time, effort and a willingness to expose your problems, insecurities and even failures. Most people face some disappointment and rejection on the way to finding good matches. So why bother?

Mentors are the closest you can get to a GPS app to help navigate your career path. They have the experience, knowledge and connections to guide you in the right direction, despite bumps and roadblocks. Who wouldn't want a guide who is willing to commit their valuable time and knowledge to helping with the tough questions? 

The specific support a mentor provides will depend on your goals and their background, but mentees typically look for their advisors to:

  • motivate
  • inspire
  • challenge and question
  • guide, inform and exemplify
  • support
  • sponsor 
  • make connections with influential people
  • open doors and introduce new opportunities  

Know Thyself

Socrates declared, “Know thyself,” while Aristotle counseled that “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” The ancient Greeks were onto something. Before you can forge great matches with mentors, you need to know yourself and exactly what you want from those relationships.

What Do You Need?

A good place to start is assessing where you are in your career right now. What kinds of guidance would help you most? That depends on knowing your strengths and weaknesses. What are the areas in which you need to grow? What do you want to learn? Now is the time for honest self-reflection to clarify what you need most and your needs and what you can expect from a mentor.

Speaking of expectations, it’s generally unrealistic to expect a single mentor to meet all of your career needs. A mentor may be capable of offering advice across multiple areas—like business acumen and technical knowledge—but one area of expertise is usually predominant. A good approach can be to build a portfolio of mentors, or personal advisory board, which will enrich your decision making with a diversity of strengths and perspectives. 

An Informal Approach 

Lockheed Martin Chairman, President and CEO Marillyn Hewson proposes a “moment-based” mentoring model. One moment you may look to a senior leader for help, and then later that day seek advice from a neighboring cube dweller on a completely different topic.  

This alternative to the formal, full-time mentoring relationship is a fluid version of the advisory board concept. The primary focus is building a very broad network that will allow you to tap the right advisor at the very moment you need them. Informal mentoring like this is becoming a more practical approach given the fast pace of our business lives and frequency of change. 

Rather than focusing on either formal or informal mentorship, a blend of the two can provide the benefits of a longer-term relationship as well as diverse, quick advice from anyone who can meet a momentary need when it crops up.  

Profiling Your “Ideal” Mentors

This really isn't as creepy as it sounds! Once you know what you really need from your advisors, it’s a lot easier to determine what types of people can provide support in those areas. A simple table can help you figure out who you want in your corner by mapping your ideal mentor profiles:    

My Objectives

Who Could Help?

Get better at financial analysis.

CFOs, controllers, business unit leaders.

Learn to delegate more effectively.

Managers of large, successful teams.

Get promoted.

Senior executives who can influence the head of my organization; people with connections in the organizations where I’d like doors to open for me.

Get my “spark” back—feel motivated and driven.

Entrepreneurs – I find them motivating, energizing and inspiring.

Get help with big decisions.

People who have already faced the kinds of challenges that are now on my plate; those who are on a path like mine but further along on it (at a more senior level).

Become more fluent in front-end web development.

CSS experts on my own team.

Ambitious, Successful Professional Seeks Knowledgeable Mentor

Now you know what they “look” like. But how do you find these mentors and connect with them? It’s not much different from matching potential job opportunities with your interests and qualifications; except now you have to apply the process to prospective mentors. 

Unfortunately, there’s no Match.com for mentors to make it easy to identify potential advisors with the right characteristics. Bloomberg anchor Betty Liu notes

Finding a mentor is difficult…because you're requesting valuable time of someone. There's no clear answer: Nobody can dial up 1-800-Mentor-Me.

Liu experienced an ideal mentorship with Jimmy Lee, former Vice Chairman of JP Morgan: A friendship that grew organically over time. But for those who are not in the right place at the right time or the right connections—and that’s most of us—it takes more than serendipity to make it happen.

Where to Focus 

There are a lot of different ways to focus your connection efforts, depending on the kinds of mentors you seek. 

1. Look to People You Already Know 

Consider if anyone you already know fits one of your mentor profiles. Prospective mentors who already respect you and your capabilities are your path of least resistance.

  • Who in your own company might be a good candidate? Once you identify someone, do some digging to find out if he or she sits on any task forces or project teams. Then see if you can pitch in.
  • Are there former bosses that you really respected or saw as role models? Think about former peers that have moved onto other companies. A guy who sat in a cube next to me early in our careers is now a COO. Two others are successful entrepreneurs. Who’s in your network and what kinds of guidance could they offer?
  • Author Kerry Hannon offers the valuable reminder that “college ties do bind,” so it pays to take advantage of them. She suggests using Advanced People Search on LinkedIn, where you can enter a title and your university and search on your zip code or city. I might search for current VPs of R&D who attended Georgia Tech and live in Atlanta, for example, to try to find potential mentors to connect with nearby.

It’s easy to overlook mentor possibilities and assume doors are closed before you ever knock. Look across industries and ages, and try to keep an open mind about who might be able to help you. If you've been out of school for a while, don't forget about what your professors might bring to the table. Also, don't forget non-profit connections if you're in a for-profit business, and vice versa.

2. Structured Program Options 

One worthwhile step is to check in with your HR team to see if your company has an established mentoring program that you can join. Many firms have become known for their mentoring programs over the years, like General Mills, Intel, Ernst & Young, American Express, Cisco, Citi, Intel, Morgan Stanley, Time Warner, Deloitte and Goldman Sachs.

You also might find that your company or other organizations in your community are offering more creative mentoring programs that could be of value to you:

  • Peer mentoring is when groups of individuals with shared interests offer guidance to each other (in the same vein as the "lean in circles" espoused by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg).
  • Reverse mentoring is when older professionals look to younger colleagues to help them stay current in their industry. Originally espoused by former General Electric Chairman Jack Welch, Ogilvy & Mather and other major ad agencies have embraced this approach.
  • Speed mentoring is exactly what you'd expect from the name: speed-dating-style conversations with prospective mentors. An example is Mentoring Monday, a national initiative spearheaded by Bizwomen that pairs women business leaders with women in their own community for speed mentoring sessions in 40 US locations.  

Many other programs are specialized based on area of interest:

  • Group mentoring, either in person or virtual, takes place in a growing number of topic-centered meetup groups. The Atlanta Developers’ Unit, for example, provides mentorship opportunities for developers and engineers across industries. 
  • If you think you could learn a lot from entrepreneurs, or you'd like guidance in becoming one yourself, take a look at SCORE. This nonprofit association is affiliated with the Small Business Administration and offers business counseling services.
  • Women face some unique challenges in connecting with mentors, as highlighted in Sylvia Hewlett’s research. Some companies have established targeted development groups and programs, like ADP’s Women in Leadership. These are typically structured to help junior and mid-career women connect with and learn from female executives across the company.

3. Meet Them Where They Are

If your current network proves too narrow or shallow to fulfill your needs, it could be time to cast a wider net targeting people you admire but don't actually know (yet). It's time to get moving to where your ideal mentor types are already going. 

Where are the people with the right knowledge, skills, experience and connections? These are the people who belong in the table you built earlier. 

LinkedIn offers one of the most efficient vehicles for determining how you can find people with specific characteristics. One strategy is to hone in on events planned by any industry or networking groups in which your target mentors are active. Then, invest in attending. Take every opportunity—coffee and lunch breaks at a conference, walking the floor at a networking breakfast—to share your interests and sniff out potential mentor matches.  

Tips on Connecting and Forging a Mentorship

Maybe you've been matched with a mentor through a formal company program. Or, you've been talking with an executive at a networking meeting who might be a great ongoing source of advice. Whatever the exact situation, the onus is on you to approach your new mentor—or the person who you hope will take on that role. It can be awkward and downright uncomfortable, but these strategies can help.

1. Prove Your Value

Unfortunately, one pleasant conversation can’t establish the kind of trust and familiarity that motivates potential mentors to jump into your world and invest their time. You may manage to get on their radar, but it will take effort to stay there. Look for ways to show your potential and what you can contribute, like:

  • following their work
  • retweeting and sharing on social media
  • commenting on their blogs
  • referring business to them

Denny McCorkle at the University of Colorado points to social media as a key enabler that allows mentees to connect virtually with mentors. But instead of just connecting, he advises setting up stakeholder groups using tags on LinkedIn and lists on Twitter. Then you can monitor your stakeholders’ activities and watch for opportunities to engage and respond quickly.

All of these efforts give you the opportunity to show mentors your support, along with the value of your voice and your follow through. And, they get a taste of how you could help them more consistently if you were their mentee. If you keep the lines of communication open, a constructive relationship and even friendship have the potential to grow organically.

2. Perfect Your Elevator Pitch

Since your dream mentors are probably not going to ask you to meet for coffee next week, you need to be ready to confidently and clearly position yourself whenever you get the opportunity.

One way to gain confidence is to come up with an elevator pitch and practice it. Your personal elevator pitch is a short way of explaining what it is about you that is differentiated and valuable. This is a case where downplaying your accomplishments will get you nowhere fast. A mentor will want to know that you can make them look good, so you should start by proving you can make yourself look good.

If you're not quite sure what to say or how to get started on a pitch, this tutorial on defining your personal brand will help.

3. Start Small

Instead of asking the big, formal, scary question “Will you be my mentor?,” instead start small. The thought of taking on responsibility for a mentee with all the required work can be overwhelming and off-putting. You can start by informally asking for help with just one decision or problem. 

To encourage a longer-term relationship, make this first interaction as easy as possible for your advisor. You can get off on the right foot by making it clear what you need. Then listen to their advice, act on it where appropriate and be gracious. 

If you make it easy and fun for them to help you, chances are, they'll want to do it again. Inviting him or her to lunch or coffee on you never hurts, either.

Making It Work: How to Nurture Mentorships

Many mentoring relationships start off with a flurry of activity but then quickly wither on the vine. Some people never really “click.” Others never establish momentum. But there are a few proven yet simple ways to nurture a mentorship and make it worth the investment for your advisors.

1. A Two-Way Street

Perhaps most important is that mentorship has to be two-way street. That means you have to give and not just take from the relationship. 

Some people have trouble seeing any value they could offer to a senior executive or highly accomplished professional. They are sadly underestimating themselves. Done well, mentorship will be rewarding for both of you. 

2. Make It Fun

One prerequisite is making it enjoyable for them to spend time with you, not a chore. That could mean being a good listener or bringing humor to the challenges you describe. It means approaching your advisors with energy and interest in what they have to say. It could even mean coming up with fun ways to meet that are more informal. 

3. Other Ways to Give Back

Mentees give back to their mentors in so many other ways. You might: 

  • Be a source of information by sharing articles and posts that are relevant to their role or interests they’ve shared with you (Going back to the last point: listen!).
  • Show your commitment by acting on their advice. 
  • Share your network and raise their visibility to new people.
  • Say thank you. Let them know how they've helped you grow professionally and how much you appreciate it offers a meaningful emotional reward.
  • When you're facing a challenge, brainstorm potential solutions to discuss with your mentor rather than presenting a blank slate. Ask for feedback and accept criticism with humility. 

No matter what else you do, be authentic. Your mentor needs to get to know the real you—your values, strengths, challenges and aspirations—in order to build the context to offer counsel that you can trust.

A couple of tough but necessary questions to regularly ask yourself are: Is this a good relationship for my mentor? Am I worth the investment? If you can’t unequivocally say "yes" and hit on a few reasons why, you probably have some work to do. A good rule of thumb is to strive to be the kind of person you would want to mentor.

Next Steps

In this tutorial you’ve seen the value mentors can bring to your career, as well as how to identify potential mentors, connect with them and build constructive, long-standing relationships.

It can be simple to find someone who will give advice or even tell you exactly what they think you should do. Building a personal advisory board of mentors who are willing to commit their time and attention to help you reach your goals is far more challenging—but far more rewarding. 

Resources

Graphic Credit: Knowledge Transfer icon designed by Duke Innovation Co-Lab from the Noun Project.

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