Office Hours: How to find a mentor and make the relationship last

Originally posted on Medium.

There’s a lot more to it than asking for help.

We believe that Google and stick-to-it-iveness can get a person pretty far in life. Sometimes, though, you cannot Google your way to victory, despite your best efforts. Sometimes, you just need to talk to someone who’s been there.

For questions that your boss or friends or parents can’t answer, for longer-term guidance, and for connections to an industry you’re eager to learn more about, finding a mentor can be a real game changer. But how do you find the right mentor? And once you find one, how do you make the relationship stick? We’re so glad you asked.

Where are all the mentors hiding?

Not sure where to begin? First, look at your own workplace. You probably don’t want your current boss to be your only mentor, even if your relationship is strong—there will be times when you’ll want to strategize with someone else about asking for a raise, pitching a new idea, or dealing with a point of tension. Within your company, are there more experienced coworkers who aren’t your manager or your manager’s manager, but who do work that you admire? That’s a great place to start. Your college or high school alumni network is another solid place to look—remember, mentoring can be remote! You can also look for professional development organizations in your city, and attend networking nights and events specific to your industry.

If you’re in a very niche field with very specific challenges, you might want someone working in the precise role you hope to land someday. But if your challenges are more garden variety — i.e., the general types of situations most seasoned professional have some experience navigating — you can broaden your search to include other professions.

It might also be helpful to find a mentor who shares aspects of your identity. There are a lot of professional development orgs that focus on connecting women and people of color — see what you can find in your city.

Be open-minded, and say yes to opportunities that might put you into contact with people you could learn from. Remember: you don’t have to keep the same mentor forever, and you don’t have to limit yourself to just one.

How do you make a potential mentor into an actual mentor?

What not to do: ask a total stranger to be your mentor

Put yourself in the shoes of a your potential mentor. If you were a busy professional who already had borderline too much on your plate, would you respond to a LinkedIn DM from a random 22-year-old—or even an acquaintance—asking for some kind of official relationship? You might — but odds are, you’d me be more likely to respond if the ask was significantly more modest.

This isn’t like asking someone to prom—you don’t have to make anything official. Instead, think of finding a mentor as the gradual development of a relationship, rather than a yes/no interview. Ask someone for coffee, or for a brief phone call to address a specific issue, or for an informational interview, and see how it goes. If it feels like you’ve found promising mentor/mentee chemistry — the conversation isn’t hugely effortful and you feel like you’re understanding one another— propose another coffee or conversation. Read their cues, but don’t be afraid to ask. Most busy adults won’t agree to something they really don’t want to do.

Remember that mentorship can come in many forms

Mentorship can mean the traditional long-term relationship—but it can also mean a season of help, or a one-off phone call with someone in another city. You might find that you want multiple mentors to guide you in different arenas of your career and life. In other words: don’t worry if you can’t find one single person to meet all of your mentor needs.

Once you’ve found a mentor

Respect your mentor’s space and time

Mentorship is rarely (if ever) a one way street; your mentor almost certainly wouldn’t spend time with you if they didn’t get something out of it, from a fresh perspective on their own work to an enjoyable relationship. But on some level, your mentor is still doing you a favor. Acknowledge that, and respect it. Don’t make enormous asks of their time. Unless you’ve built up this kind of rapport, don’t call them with every little problem. Find out how they want to be contacted (email? text?) and respect that wish. Be on time for meetings. (It’s a good rule of thumb to plan to arrive ten minutes early.) Meet in locations that are convenient for them, even if it it’s a pain. In general, show respect—it’s a good way to keep the relationship going.

Don’t ask for huge favors right away

So you heard through the grapevine that your new mentor knows the CEO of your favorite company, or seems to be Twitter friends with an influencer you just know would love your new brand. Maybe your mentor is an angel investor or works at a VC firm. Maybe you’ve gleaned from Instagram that they have a lake house in the country, and you want to use it for a company retreat. If the ask feels big, save it for a while. It’s uncomfortable when someone you’ve just met asks you for a large favor. It seems opportunistic, and it never feels good to make an intro before you fully know who you’re vouching for. Spend at least a few months building trust and proving you’d reflect well on your mentor before pulling out the big asks.

Don’t treat your mentor like your best friend

As you grow more comfortable with your mentor, the relationship will probably grow less formal and more casual. But you should still let your mentor set the tone when it comes to how you socialize — and even if they share personal anecdotes and the occasional wildly unprofessional musing, don’t assume it’s ok for you to follow suit. Don’t tell your mentor about any illegal activity (duh). While it’s ok to talk through office tension, don’t tell them that you think your boss is an idiot, even if you’ve had a very, very bad day. Basically, don’t say anything that will come back to haunt you if one day, you wanted to work for your mentor. You won’t regret keeping things above board.

Make it a two-way street

Just because you’re less experienced doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to be helpful to your mentor. Maybe they could use a recent-grad’s take on a new social media platform or trend. Maybe they’d like your perspective on an area of tension with a coworker. You probably have at least a few skills they don’t have. Don’t hesitate to offer help just because you feel like they know more than you. Find ways to express your gratitude.

Keep them posted on big changes in your life

Did you get a promotion, or move to another department? Thinking about getting a new job or switching industries? Moving across the country? Let your mentor know what’s going on! It’s the polite thing to do — and there’s a good chance they’ll be able to offer you new connections and opportunities.

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