Monday, September 27, 2010

Tips for asking someone to be your mentor

[UPDATE: Watch my YouTube video answer on this topic by clicking here!]

A reader of this blog wrote in and asked: "How do you ask someone to be your mentor? (these people are typically very busy and you are asking for some of their precious time). What qualities do you look for in a mentor?". Thank you for these 2 great questions!

I've been very lucky in my professional life to have had several mentors throughout my career. 5 in total to be exact - 3 formal ones and 2 informal ones. As I've written previously my first mentor was not sought out by me but after gaining so much benefit, both professional and personal, from that relationship I reached out for mentors since then.

The first part to getting a mentor is identifying possible candidates. Much like dating there has to be a certain "match" and an interest on both sides. If there are people around you that you admire or wish you could emulate that puts them on the list of your candidate mentors! If not then ask for recommendations. At one company I found my mentor by asking my boss. Asking your manager is recommended anyway as it accomplishes two things: 1. it lets your manager know your desire to grow through mentoring and that you're taking strong interest in your career by making this type of commitment; 2. it also lets your manager know that you'll be meeting someone outside of our immediate organization to talk about topics usually reserved for 'the boss' such as your career. A good boss will be very encouraging of your mentoring desires and may know folks at their level (or higher) that would be a good match for you! Or they may know great Business or Life Coaches who specialize in career and life coaching for hire.

Once you've identified your list of candidates set up a short meeting, perhaps coffee, with the individual at the top of your list. Typically these folks are very busy so be respectful of their calendar and be patient to get that initial meeting. If this person's name came from a recommendation perhaps the person that gave you the recommendation can set up an introduction. And please do keep that initial meeting short to demonstrate that you keep your commitments when it comes to people's time.

If you are going the paid Business Coach route you still need to set up an initial conversation because you still need to ensure a great "match". Especially if you are paying for them! Many Business Coaches will set up initial consultations for free.

When meeting time arrives start off by explaining the purpose of the meeting (i.e. to see if there is a mutual interest in starting a mentoring relationship). Explain why you think this would be a good match. If possible enumerate the qualities you've seen or heard about the candidate mentor/coach that you admire. It's important to establish rapport early in the conversation or quickly recognize that it's difficult to do so and may not make a great fit. Don't be shy! Be eager! Most everyone would be flat out flattered that they are being approached with this kind of request even if in the end there isn't a fit. Talk a little bit about yourself - what you do, where you see yourself going. Also talk about what you expect to get out of a mentor and what kind of time commitment you expect. Do be sure to be flexible as you are the one essentially asking a favor even if in the end the relationship ends up being very beneficial to both of you. Both of you should have enough of a conversation to decide if you'd like to proceed.

Hopefully the answer is "yes" to proceeding from both of you but be very prepared to hear "No" from the candidate mentor. Don't take it personally! I've had some candidate mentors say no to me because they were already mentoring 3 other people and simply could not take on an additional person. You may hear "no" because the person honestly feels that they can't offer you much help or time. Not everyone is prepared to be a mentor and that doesn't make them a bad person of course. You may decide "no" on your part because the qualities you thought the candidate mentor possessed were not quite there. If this isn't your mentor that's fine just move to the next person on the list or grow your list through conversations with peers and friends.

Regarding the 2nd question about qualities to look for in a mentor success really depends on the chemistry between the two individuals. Will you feel comfortable discussing sensitive topics with each other? Is this someone you can trust? Did you feel you established a good rapport with the person after that initial meeting? Below is a good list taken from the article: "6 Qualities of a Good Mentor":


  1. Authentic – the mentor “practices” what he/she “preaches.”  A good mentor will not only tell you what the best approach is, but is utilizing the approach him/herself.  The mentor doesn’t send you in one direction while he/she goes another saying, “you have to learn the hard way.”  The purpose of working with a mentor is to learn from the mentor's mistakes.
  2. Personally Involved – the mentor should take a personal interest in the mentoring relationship.  The mentor should get to know you, how you work, what your goals are, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and any other pertinent information that you (the mentee) believe to be relevant.
  3. Listens – a good mentor will genuinely listen to your concerns and not be eager to get the conversation over.  You shouldn’t be a list item on your mentor’s day sheet.  He should know your current projects by name and be able to ask you, first hand, how things are going.
  4. Continues to Learn and Grow – a good mentor knows that he couldn’t possibly know everything there is to know in any given field today – the world has become much too complex.  Things change, people change, circumstances change – and it’s all great.  A good mentor will remain open to new ideas and even try them.
  5. Assumes You’re Great – a good mentor doesn’t assume that you’re a loser just because you are coming to him for advice.  He recognizes that you have talent and are successful already, (otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to afford his fee! [Editor's addition: or that you wouldn't necessarily recognize the benefits of mentoring even without a fee!]).  At the very least, he should see your potential or otherwise not take you on as a mentee.
  6. Builds You Up – A good mentor is tuned in, tapped in, turned on, and in their wholeness, they will uplift you.  When someone fosters insecurity in you, they are not tuned in, tapped in, turned on, and they’re not a good mentor for you in that moment.


I agree with all these qualities and would explicitly add one more: trustworthiness - can this person keep things confidential? You need to have an open and safe place to discuss anything and that space isn't created if there is fear of information getting out. Establish the "all our conversations stay in the room" rule at your first session.

I hope this helps give some tips on finding a great mentor! Keep the questions coming and thanks again!

9 comments:

anita said...

I just asked a cousin of a cousin at my new company to be my mentor. We are going to setup an initial meeting and I'll see what he says.

Thanks for the good advice!

Alan Saporta said...

My pleasure. Good luck and thanks Anita! Please keep me posted. As always don't hesitate to send any questions as well!

Jake Smith said...

Hi, Alan. I will be attending an all-day voice acting workshop this weekend. One of the guest directors will be a very successful voice actor that I greatly admire, and I would really like to ask him to be my mentor, but I am having trouble formulating the words. After my thank you for directing me throughout the day, I'm not sure if I should say something to the effect of "Would you ever consider being a mentor or taking on a mentee?" or "Is there any chance I could buy you a coffee and..." That's where I get stuck. He is a very busy person, working on new projects every day, and I would not be offended if he said no, but I'm just not sure about the best way to approach him. I am confident enough in my abilities as a voice actor to prove to him when I get behind the mic throughout the day that I'm serious about making a living out of voice acting. But I just don't want to come on too strong, and I also don't want to confuse him with what my intention is.

I'm trying to find the "perfect" words, and I know I won't be able to find the "perfect" words, but would you have any advice for me on what to say/how to approach him?

OnMentoring said...

Hi Jake,

Thanks so much for your comment and question!

I may not have the "perfect" words for you but I DO have some advice. As you might already guess it's all about the approach you take and your mindset.

1. After the "thank you for the day" just tell him what you told me in a succinct way (think it through and practice!). You can start with saying that you know he is extremely busy but would he be open to mentoring you?

2. Proceed to tell him briefly why you admire him. A specific reason is better than a general reason. "You're really great" is pretty general and less effective than something like "your work in XYZ has had a major positive impact in my life", etc.

3. Then tell him why you think a mentoring relationship would be mutually beneficial. Tell him (again, briefly) what you expect you could get out of the relationship. And be sure to tell him what you could do for him in return! Even if you don't think there is anything always offer something as it demonstrates both a seriousness on your part and an understanding that his time is valuable.

4. Don't press him for an immediate answer. Perhaps in the moment based on his reaction you can sense whether he is interested in going for a coffee now or in the near future to talk more about the possibility. Either way ask if he'd be ok exchanging contact information.

5. If at whatever point he declines your request ask if he has any suggestions of someone you could approach to be your mentor. Even better would be if he'd be willing to introduce you to this person.

Whatever you say be yourself/be authentic! A mentoring relationship is all about honesty and trust. You both have to click so might as well relax and be yourself from the get-go. If it's not going to be a fit for whatever reason it's great to find out now.

I hope this is helpful to you. Enjoy the workshop. If you wish let me know how it goes. I really wish you luck!

Jake Smith said...

Hi Alan,

This post is pretty delayed, but thank you very much for your response. I saw your post on the morning of the workshop I was attending, and shortly after I got back from the workshop, my computer crashed. I lost this page and completely forgot to respond to you until just now when I was getting ready to approach someone else about mentoring.

The workshop I attended back in July went well. I did pretty much exactly what you said when I asked this voice actor about mentoring and he told me that right now he is very busy and doesn't have too much time, which I completely understand and respect. He did however say that he would be willing to grab a bite to eat with me and chat sometime when he was in town again (he lives a couple hours from the city). I haven't taken him up on the offer, but I'm able to contact him about it whenever.

Well now I'm about to approach another voice actor about mentoring, but this time it's a bit different. A mutual friend has told me he'd be more than happy to forward an e-mail letter of mine to this voice actor. He offered to do this because, he said, I'm talented and he thinks that the voice actor would think it's a great idea. I'm hesitant though about using the word "mentor" in my letter. Would your advice be any different this time around since I've never met him before and the way I'm asking is much less personal?

I so appreciate your continued help!

Best,
Jake

OnMentoring said...

Hi Jake,

Thanks for the follow up. I'm glad I could help.

I'm really thrilled that the voice actor at the workshop agreed to stay in contact with you. You never know what that could lead to. Maybe one day it could build into a mentoring relationship if his time frees up. Or perhaps it could lead to other postive things like a job opportunity. Good things tend to come to those who stay networked.

Regarding how to approach this new person my advice remains the same. One adjustment might be if you don't really know this person and can't state why you admire them you would instead mention your friend's recommendation that you two connect. A referral counts for a lot when building your network.

I would absolutely keep the word "mentor" in there. I'm a fan of being explicit when asking for something as clarity ensures a higher chance of getting what you want. Almost everyone will be flattered to be asked to be a mentor so I can't see how using the word would be a bad thing.

I hope this is useful to you. Good luck and keep me posted if you'd like.

Ramajeyam said...

Hi Alan!

Just stumbled upon your post. Nice one!

- Ramji

Adam Newbold said...

Hi, Alan. Thanks for the great post here on finding a mentor.

I have a question. The person I'm considering asking to be my mentor is one of my professors. He matches up with the list of qualities you wrote about perfectly. He's the kind of person who you just know was born to be a teacher. Would having my professor as my mentor put a strain on the mentor-mentee relationship, seeing as not only would we be meeting to talk about mentor-type things, but I would also be a student in one of his classes. I wonder if there I might feel pressure to make sure I'm doing well just so I don't damage our mentoring relationship. (I hope that makes sense).

What are your thoughts on that?

And, also, you mention to be specific about what I would expect in a mentor. What if I don't know what to expect? I mean, I've seen some mentor relationships with other people (and I've been a mentor to high school students), but I'm just not sure what are the things to technically ask for when I'm asking someone to be my mentor.

Lastly, do you find that mentorships often have a healthy friendship element to them? As in, should I expect that if I get a mentor, that our meetings together will only be for business/career advice, or do mentors and mentees get together just to hang out?

Thanks in advance for your response!

- Adam

OnMentoring said...

Hi Adam,

Thanks so much for your comment. Those are great questions. Here are my thoughts:

1. I don't generally recommend having someone with "power" over you to also be a mentor but it's not unheard of. My first mentor was actually my boss and that turned out to be extremely successful. If the two of you are disciplined enough to keep it separate you should be good to go. Besides, is pressure to do well in his class such a bad thing? :)

2. If you aren't sure what to expect in a mentoring relationship just ask yourself why you want one in the first place. Are you seeking out a mentor simply because you feel it's a "good thing" or is there guidance in some aspect in your life that you seek? Did someone you know have a mentor and achieve results that you'd like to emulate?

3. re: friendships. Certainly a mentoring relationship could evolve into a friendship but that's uncommon in my experience. Usually friends have a lot more in common than a typical mentor/mentee. A mentor tends to be in a different place in their lives than a mentee which is why the mentee seeks that person out.

I hope these answers were helpful. Again, thanks for these terrific questions. Congratulations to you both on being a mentor and a mentee. Keep up the good work!