Dear Lifehacker, I understand how useful it is to have a mentor, or someone whose experience I can benefit from. Once I’ve found someone though, how do I ask them? Do you just email them and ask, or is there a better way to make your case? Sincerely, Desperately Seeking Senpai
You’re right to ask the question. After all, not everyone has the time or the opportunity to be a good mentor. Landing a great mentor means you have to choose the person you ask carefully, ask them the right way, and then know when to follow up (and when not to follow up, for that matter).
Make Sure You’re Asking the Right Person
Choosing the right person as a mentor is probably the biggest factor to whether they will accept your request. Most people want mentors who exemplify their vision of success — business leaders, entrepreneurs, recognisable names — it’s easy to want to have a famous businessperson, developer or activist as your personal mentor. But odds are those people are already busy or unavailable, and while it never hurts to ask, the odds are heavily against you. Remember, your mentor doesn’t have to be a household name to be a good one — anyone whose experience and wisdom you can learn from would make a great mentor.
When you’re looking for someone to be your mentor, look for people who have the title, position or experience you’re trying to get. Don’t set your sights too far off into the future. Think about your next few career goals and look for people who match, preferably people you know personally or could easily meet. If your company has a mentorship program, start there. Participants are looking for people to mentor, so you’ll have an easier time finding someone willing to take you under their wing. If not, consider a manager in your own department or another department in your company that you work closely with. Ask a friend or someone in your professional network to connect you with someone in their company who’s willing to take on a mentor and has the position you’re looking for.
Whoever you choose, pick someone you can easily meet and talk to face to face. It may seem like a good idea to aim high and ask someone you’ve never met (but whose work you’re familiar with) to be your mentor, but you’ll have better luck asking someone with whom you already have a personal connection. A far-off face on the internet may be able to trade emails with you from time to time, but they probably won’t be able to pay regular attention to you. Someone who’s personally invested in your success and can check in with you regularly when you need advice — or when you have a question — is a much better pick.
Ask The Right Way
When you do ask someone to be your mentor, keep in mind that you’re asking them for a favour — one that will likely require a good bit of energy on their part. You’re not paying them for their time, and they don’t owe you anything. If they’re part of a mentoring program or have been a mentor in the past, they probably know this already. Even so, approach the question with the appropriate care, empathy and lack of self-entitlement. The fastest way to get the old “Sorry, I don’t have time right now” response is to overconfidently demand your prospective mentor’s time and attention.
A few pointers to keep in mind:
- If at all possible, don’t ask your mentor to be your mentor via email. If it’s the only way to get a hold of them, sure, but if you can meet them face-to-face for coffee or chat on the phone, you’ll have a much better chance of making your case and addressing their concerns, if any.
- Come to the table with how much time and attention you think you’ll need. Don’t make them guess how much of a time sink you’ll be. Let them know up front how much time and attention you really think your mentor/mentee relationship will demand. Remember, your prospective mentor is likely busy with their own projects.
- Be ready to explain what you want to get out of the mentorship, why you want the person you’re asking to be your mentor, and why you want a mentor in the first place. You don’t have to stroke the other person’s ego, but you should explain that you know who they are and you value their expertise. Let them know that their career mirrors your would-be career path, and you think you could learn a lot from them. If you can, share a story they would resonate with — or a story of theirs you already know and what you learned from it.
- Make your case based on common experiences and interests. Remember, getting a mentor to work with you is less of a job interview and more of a friend request. If you feel like their angle is “well, what do I get out of this,” you may want to back off, but do let them know that you feel like you may be able to learn from each other if they will give you a chance. If you do have common interests or hobbies, play that up too.
- Explain you’re looking for advice and guidance, not a tutor. Your mentor shouldn’t do your work for you, and they should know from the outset that you’re looking to learn from their experience — not have them essentially be the parent you ask for help every time you’re stuck with your homework.
- If your question seems to make your prospective mentor uncomfortable, back off. Mentors, like references, should be 100 per cent dedicated to the task of helping you out. If you get the vibe that they feel pressured or don’t really want to be in the position you’re putting them in, let them out — if you force them into it, you won’t get the best possible experience anyway, and worse, you may be imposing.
The more you can make a complete case for what you’re looking for, why you chose them, and how much of an investment you represent, the easier it will be for your potential mentor to say yes.
Know When to Follow Up (and When Not To)
Like we mentioned earlier, your mentor should be engaged — not just with the idea of mentoring, but with mentoring you specifically. If you ask them to be your mentor and then offer to follow up later, follow up to see how they’re feeling about it. if they waffle, or they give you anything less than a confident answer, then let it go and look for someone else. You’re not going to get the best time and attention from someone who’s going to be annoyed every time you ask them out for coffee, or who felt pressured into being your mentor. If you ever start to get that vibe from your mentor, it’s time to let them off the hook, thank them for everything they have taught you up to that point, and offer to stay in touch.
If they’re open to the idea, it’s time to seal the deal and give them an idea of how often you’ll connect with them and when you’ll get in touch. They may take the lead, but don’t expect them to. You can take a load off of their plate by mapping out when you should talk and how you’ll be in touch, especially if you just need advice from time to time. Whatever you agree to, make sure you follow up, meet when you say you’re going to, and drop them a line from time to time just to check in. If there’s ever a doubt, take the initiative. Remember, you’re there to learn and soak up as much as possible from them. Don’t make them work just to get a hold of you.
Keep Your Relationship Strong, and Pay It Forward
Once you’ve landed a great mentor, do what it takes to keep that relationship strong. Not only do you have someone you can learn from, but you’ll have someone valuable in your professional network who can help you when the chips are down, or you can offer a hand to when you have something to offer. When they give you advice, make sure you take it, and when you’re not sure what you should talk about, ask them what you should be asking them.
With luck, the two of you will be able to learn a little from each other, and you’ll have the benefit of a guide with years of experience navigating difficult career and job waters to help you do the same.
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