By Allison Sanchez
Having a mentor can give you a huge boost when you’re looking to advance your career. Who doesn’t want a successful person in their field to give them advice, help them make professional contacts or find job leads, and be a source of inspiration? Basically, a mentor can be like a walking, talking vision board to help you level-up in your industry.
And research shows that mentors can have a positive effect on their mentees’ careers. A survey from the Harvard Business Review found that 84 percent of the CEOs credit their mentors with helping them avoid costly mistakes and becoming better at their jobs faster.
But even if you know you’d like a mentor to help advance your career, many professionals don’t know where to find one. Can you just walk up to someone and ask, will you be my mentor?
1. Figure out what you’re looking to get out of a mentor relationship
The first thing you should do is identify why you want a mentor, which can help you identify the person or type of person you’re looking for.
Are you aiming for a promotion and need some career guidance? Are you planning to change careers altogether and need someone to help you identify your next steps? Do you have kids and want to connect with a working mom who knows the ropes? Are you struggling to break into your industry and need a well-connected mentor willing to share their knowledge?
Keep in mind that going straight to the CEO and asking her to be your mentor isn’t necessarily as valuable as finding someone who has recently completed the first few steps toward your goal.
2. Look for specific networking opportunities (and not all networking opportunities are boring happy hours)
Once you know what you hope to get out of a mentor relationship, now it’s time to find them. This can be really challenging, but finding specific networking opportunities can be a good way to get introduced to someone who is more likely to take you on as a mentee.
A networking opportunity doesn’t have to be a traditional alumni event or after-work happy hours (but those work too), there are informal “networking” opportunities all around you.
Perhaps there’s someone in your office you admire—sit next to them during the next company meeting and introduce yourself or strike up a conversation at the coffee station. Take your manager to lunch or schedule 15 minutes with a coworker you admire.
3. Don’t just look up—look around you
Keep in mind that some of the best mentors are necessarily VPs or CEOs. There are plenty of people on your team—some older, some younger—who have all kinds of insight and wisdom to offer you.
Perhaps you’ve always admired your coworker’s presentations. Schedule a quick meeting to ask how they do what they do. Maybe the new hire has this incredible knack for leading a meeting. Ask them what their secret is. Or maybe your manager climbed the ladder quickly and gracefully. Take them to lunch and find out how they approach their career.
You might end up finding a mentor in more than one person. And that can be even more powerful that having a single mentoring relationship.
4. Get to know your mentor, before they become your mentor
It’s important to know someone before you approach them about being your mentor. You’ll want to know that you get along well with this person and that they are who you think they are.
Ask them to coffee, take them out for lunch, or ask to be put on some of their projects. If they’re giving a talk somewhere, attend and send them an email later telling them what you thought.
You might even start with a very specific request. Send them a piece of your work and ask for their feedback. Ask if they could review your resume and provide pointers. Pose a specific question for their thoughts— I’m thinking of leaving tech and going into public policy. I noticed you moved from tech to nonprofits. How did you know a career change was right for you?
This is an easy and natural way to open up the professional relationship and see if your personalities work together.
5. If that goes well, act on their advice or follow up
If they’re willing and able to answer your question, review your resume, or make an introduction, thank them for their advice and use it (if it’s worthwhile advice). If they give you some tips for an interview, follow up and let them know how it went.
If they introduce you to a contact and you never follow up or they review your resume and they never hear from you again—you’ve given them little incentive to help you in the future.
6. And finally, do you have to say, will you be my mentor?
Not necessarily. If you come to someone and request specific help, the professional relationship may develop naturally.
While you don’t necessarily have to formally ask someone to be your mentor, you may want to propose some structure to the relationship.
You might say:
Your advice and guidance has been so helpful to me during this career change. I’d love to continue getting your thoughts. Could I grab coffee with you once a month or once every two months?
I’ve always admired you as a professional. I’d love to get your advice on the regular. Would you be okay with my emailing you with questions or grabbing coffee occasionally?
Asking them whether you can lean on them for your advice will also give them the opportunity to say no if they feel like they can’t deliver on what you need.
Keep in mind that while many professionals will mentor others out of kindness, be mindful of their time. Meeting for an hour once a week may be too much, but a once-a-month meeting plus occasional emails could be more beneficial to both of you. And if you’re asking your mentor to coffee or lunch on the regular, don’t expect them to pick up the bill.