Finding & Approaching a Mentor

It is incredible how positively people in all walks of life and at all levels of importance will respond to requests from people they hardly know (or don’t know at all) to be their mentor.  As long as you are clear about why you want a mentor and what you expect from the mentoring, getting a “yes” is relatively easy.  If you are looking for a mentor here are some tips to help you think through how to find the right mentor for you, at the right time.

  • Think about people you admire or really believe you can learn from in your field.
  • Ask other who they respect as a role model and find out about their achievements and/or behaviour.
  • Who do you already know as a friend, family member, (more senior) colleague, business associate, teacher…
  • Ask people who you know and trust in your network to help introduce you to anyone you may have identified who you don’t personally know.
  • Think about how important it is that you and your mentor are able to meet in person. Face to face conversations can often be more difficult to arrange yet they provide rich opportunity to grow a mentoring relationship, especially at the start. Face to face meetings, blended with virtual conversations e.g. Skype, can be equally effective.
  • Working through a significant role change or transition. For example stepping up from one level of management or leadership to the next.
  • Developing and pursuing a career plan
  • Gaining tacit knowledge e.g. learning about the judgements needed in a job role
  • Building and extending wider and deeper networks
  • Strengthening specific leadership behaviours
  • To provide a sounding board
  • Gaining deeper understanding of different roles or functions which you are interested in

Any mentor worth their salt will expect you to have thought through what you are looking for from the mentoring. They will also expect you to have done some initial thinking about the help you might like from them as a mentor, for example, helping you to learn from mistakes or share insights into different leadership approaches.

  • What difference will age make? Does it matter if they are older, younger or the same age?
  • How important is it to you that they have a similar background? E.g. cultural, racial, same gender or sexual preference, (same gender/race matches typically tend to provide more empathy and support, while diverse matches typically provide greater learning and more effective networking).
  • Do you know what kind of person they are, as well as the authority and role they hold?
  • How important is it that they have specific (functional, technical or behavioural) experience or knowledge?
  • Do you need understanding of your job role and function, or someone who will provide different experiences and perspectives?
  • What reputation do they already have for developing other people?
  • What is their communication style? (Clash of communication style is a common reason for failure of mentoring relationships.)
  • Will they stretch and challenge your thinking as well as support your development?
  • Can they introduce you to the networks that will help your career?
  • Can they offer you a different perspective on the issues that concern you?
  • Do they have a good understanding of career opportunities in the industry?
  • Choosing a mentor who is too close to your own job role. Bringing a different perspective is a huge plus.
  • Going for power, influence or the speed with which they are progressing their own career. It’s more important to find someone, from whom you can learn a great deal.
  • Choosing someone just because you like and get on with them. Remember, if your mentor is too similar you will limit the learning potential of the mentoring.

Interviewing potential mentors

Be sure to have a conversation with any potential mentors that you are thinking of working with. This gives you both the opportunity to test out the chemistry before signing up. If it doesn’t feel right, being honest and up front will save much time and heartache later on.  Experience shows that, as long as you are well-prepared and open, potential mentors will be both understanding and supportive.

Prepare well for these initial conversations. Consider both what you are looking for in a mentor and what you might offer them or what might make them interested in working with you – what aspects of you and your experience might they find interesting?

When you do meet remember that you are both making a choice – the mentor has to decide whether they want to work with you, too!

Be prepared to discuss:

  • Your objectives – any changes you hope to see in yourself and your circumstances
  • Your expectations of how often you would want to meet the mentor and how (face to face, email, telephone etc)
  • What level of commitment each of you is prepared to make to the relationship
  • How you will both know that the relationship is achieving positive results

It’s a good idea to also use this conversation to observe:

  • How directive or non-directive they are
  • How supportive/challenging they are
  • How easily you build rapport together

At the end of the meeting, thank the potential mentor for their time, share a brief summary of what you have learned and ask for their reflections on the conversation and the potential of working together as mentor and mentee.

To help you make a decision on whether this person will be a great mentor, ask yourself:

  • What was the quality of rapport?
  • Did you share similar values?
  • Did they make you think?
  • Who did most of the talking? (The potential mentor?! This could pose a problem later!)
  • How open did you feel you could be?
  • How open were they?
  • How motivated do you feel they are to be a mentor?
  • Are they likely to find the time you are looking for?

Once you have decided, you need to go back to all the potential mentors you may have spoken with and explain your decision. Try to do this face to face, if you. Make what you say brief, positive and open. Being honest and demonstrating respect will ensure that in return, you retain their respect.

By Emily Cosgrove