A good mentor has the ability to provide critical guidance at any stage of your career and life, whether you’re a college freshman or a senior-level executive. Working with a mentor can foster professional growth, advance your career, and help you achieve your career goals.
But seeking out a mentor can also feel like a daunting task, especially if you lack an existing network or are new to a particular educational or professional environment. Where do you even begin?
In this article, you will learn an answer to this question and much more, including what a mentor is, how to find one, and what you can expect from the mentor-mentee relationship.
A mentor is an experienced individual who provides advice and guidance to another, usually less-experienced person (the mentee). In some cases, two peers of the same level may mentor one another by offering advice and guidance through a process called peer mentorship.
Mentees can be younger or older than their mentors, or in a higher or lower hierarchical position than them. The key element that defines a mentor is simply that they are more knowledgeable and experienced in a subject than their mentee. Don’t let age or job title hinder you from asking someone for advice or mentorship.
A mentor isn’t the same as a sponsor. In the professional world, a sponsor is someone in a position of authority that takes on a protege and prepares them for a role, providing career guidance and advocating for their promotion. Sponsorship is a formal relationship explicitly based on career advancement in a specific place of business.
Mentorship can be a dynamic relationship that provides long-term benefits as you walk down your career path. Follow these steps to establish a mentorship:
The first step to finding a mentor is to simply explore the field of possible mentors available to you. These might be knowledgeable individuals with whom you already have a relationship or people you don’t know personally but who have experience and insight you respect.
Your mentor can be anyone who possesses the ability to advise you on a specific topic regardless of their job title or age, so make sure to consider a range of possible mentors. You can also have multiple mentors, such as one to help you improve your communication skills and another to help you better understand target marketing.
Ultimately, there are two factors that contribute to a good mentor: (1) they possess knowledge and experience that could help you, and (2) they are willing and able to guide you.
There are many people who simply don’t have access to an existing network of possible mentors due to personal, social, or economic reasons. In particular, members of underrepresented groups might find it difficult to find suitable mentors when they are trying to break into fields in which they aren’t well-represented, such as STEM.
If you don’t have access to available resources or networks, don’t worry. There are many resources that can help you find some guidance.
Community mentorship programs. Many public establishments, such as libraries or community centers, run mentorship programs. Search to see if your area has any.
Online for organizations dedicated to making fields more accessible. There are many organizations and nonprofits dedicated to opening up career paths to underrepresented groups. For example, Colorintech is an organization dedicated to increasing diversity in tech offering resources and training to entrepreneurs, students, and established career professionals in marginalized groups.
Professional networks and organizations. There are many professional organizations that offer the opportunity to network with others in your desired field. In some cases, you might even look on professional networking websites, such as LinkedIn, to find others already working in the same industry.
Once you have identified a possible mentor, contact them to determine if they are willing to advise you.
During this step, you shouldn’t directly ask the other person to be your mentor, because this can come across as too much of a commitment early on. Instead, you should simply reach out to them to see if they would be willing to connect and discuss the possible mentorship topic.
You can reach out to your potential mentor either in person or via email. Generally, the most personal way is to simply ask in person, particularly when they are on a break of some kind. If you cannot meet them in person, then you can send them a semi-formal email explaining that you are interested in discussing the topic of interest with them and asking if they have time available, even if just for a virtual coffee.
While many people will be happy to help, occasionally the potential mentor will be too busy or simply unwilling to fulfill your request. If this is the case, then thank them for their time and look for another potential mentor.
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When you do finally meet with your potential mentor, make sure to respect their time by coming prepared with specific questions and a clear understanding of your objectives, so your potential mentor can know how best to help.
The conversation can be quite casual, so long as you stay focused on its primary purpose: to receive advice and guidance on a specific topic. To get good advice, you don’t need to have a long conversation with your potential mentor. Even a brief 15-minute meeting can be helpful when you come prepared to discuss the topic.
At the end of the discussion, thank them for their time and see if your potential mentor would be willing to meet again and discuss the topic further, once you have had a chance to implement their advice. This should be scheduled enough in advance that you are able to work on the task but not so far ahead that it will hinder your progress.
After the initial meeting, you should continue to nurture the relationship with your potential mentor by maintaining contact and updating them semi-regularly on your progress. Make a point of noting how much their advice has helped you progress, perhaps even showing them the concrete outcomes, if possible.
Depending on your goals and your mentor's availability, you will also want to schedule further meetings with them. These can be weekly, monthly, or quarterly – whatever realistically works for both of you.
You might also consider asking the other person to formally be your mentor, though this is not a necessity. While some people will be happy to take on the role of mentor, others might resist a formal title associated with increased responsibility. Use your own discretion when making this decision.
Your mentor is already devoting a certain amount of their time and energy to helping you, so it’s important to respect their boundaries. Just like you, your mentor has a life and professional goals that require attention.
In effect, you should be mindful of not inundating your mentor with requests for which they may not have the time. For example, if you want their feedback on a specific project, then make sure to give them plenty of time rather than sending them something at the last minute. It may be wise to directly set boundaries with your mentor by simply asking them when and how you are allowed to contact them. This will ensure that the relationship is as pleasant as possible for both of you.
Mentorship doesn’t need to be a one-way street, you can also help your mentor whenever the opportunity arises. While most mentors won’t expect anything in return for their help, it’s always a good gesture to help them out whenever possible. For example, you might help your mentor out with a project that overlaps with your own skill set or you might treat them to a coffee every now and then. Whether you do something big or small, your mentor will likely appreciate your effort.
No mentor can provide you with everything you need. As a result, you should consider creating a network of mentors.
For example, you might have one mentor who offers advice on improving your communication skills, another who provides professional guidance, and another that helps you better understand the inner workings of project management. By having a mix of mentors, you can expand your skill set and connect with professionals in spheres.
As you begin to gain experience or move into new positions, you will likely find that you’ll need new mentors to help you meet new challenges. You should make an effort to change mentors throughout your life and career as your goals and needs change. This will help you gain new insights and assistance as you move up in your career.
That said, you shouldn’t simply leave your old mentors behind. Instead, make an effort to maintain contact and help them whenever possible. For example, you might catch up over coffee with an old mentor or you might connect them with someone else from your network. You might also consider sending them updates about your personal life and career, making sure to thank them for helping you get to the next level. You didn’t do it alone, after all.
At its core, mentorship is all about learning. As you’re working with your mentor, you might also consider taking a flexible, online course to help you get to that next step. Wharton’s Achieving Personal and Professional Success Specialization, for example, will help you define success, communicate effectively, and use influence to accomplish your personal and career goals.
With time, effort, and – of course – help from your friends, you really can make that next big step in your life.
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