When I went to New York, I heard Seth Godin refer to Tom Peters and the late Zig Ziglar as his mentors. When I went to Geneva, I heard Shaper after Shaper talk about their mentors who have helped them avoid certain failure, learn from mistakes, and accelerate towards their goals. In the online world, you’ll hear podcasters and bloggers consistently refer to the mentors who have helped them learn everything they know.
And yet, in so many of my daily interactions and my coaching work, I hear my peers struggle with the task of identifying, approaching, meeting, and a maintaining a relationship with a mentor. As if that weren’t enough of a struggle, many people completely misunderstand the concept of mentoring and add unnecessary stress to the process as a result.
I have been fortunate enough to have a number of extraordinary mentors in my life. In fact, I wouldn’t be 1/4 of the person I am today without the help, encouragement, advice, and accountability I’ve received from mentors over time. But I don’t want to share just my opinion with you, so I went in search of some of the best resources on the topic of mentoring as well.
With the combination of my research and personal experience, I’m here to tell you that you can have your own mentor (or even your own personal board of advisors) with 1-3 months. The rest of this post will clear up what mentoring is exactly, how to find one of your own, and how to maintain the relationships over time. To make it easy to consume, I’ve created this post in a simple Q&A format. If you already know the answer to one question, simply move on to the next. Let’s do this…
What is a mentor?
A mentor is a person whom you’ve met or otherwise interacted that represents some combination of the following to you:
- Has characteristics, qualities, and values you aspire to emulate in your own life
- Has experiences and/or background that represent the aspirations you have for yourself
- Has collective wisdom and knowledge that gives him the ability to offer valuable advice
- Represents the kind of person with whom you’d like to build a long term, mutually beneficial relationship
Put as simply as possible, a mentor is someone you admire and would like to learn from in order to help you reach your goals.
What is mentoring?
We know what a mentor is, but if that’s the case, then what, exactly, is mentoring as a practice?
Mentoring has been built up over time into this golden beam of light shining down from the mountaintop. However, in all reality, mentoring is simply a series of regular conversations that allow you to learn, grow, and become a better person.
The vast majority of mentoring relationships do not start off with, “Will you be my mentor?” Just like dating, the conversation may eventually lead to a formal question, but the first question you ask is not one that requires a long-term commitment. Why? Because it will scare away some of the best and brightest mentors you can possibly find.
Instead, many of the best mentoring relationships I (and many of the most successful young professionals I know) have had in my life have developed naturally over time. As I made the effort to follow up with the business and other leaders I wanted to learn from, we naturally fell into a rhythm that allowed us to meet on a regular basis.
Some mentoring duos will get together as often as weekly, while others will get together as few as four times per year, or once each quarter. The meetings are used to have anything from a very structured coaching-type conversation all the way over to a completely free-range and naturally flowing discourse.
Some of the best mentoring relationships will encourage you to set daring but doable goals at the end of each meeting. When you set these goals, it allows your mentor to hold you accountable to your best intentions at your next meeting. In return, some of the best mentees find ways to offer to help their mentors meet their goals as well.
Through this ongoing, mutually beneficial and respectful relationship, many mentors and mentees find that they become dear friends over time. Regardless of the friendship, this introduction to mentoring should show you at least one thing: mentoring is what you make of it, and the form, function, and benefits can vary widely from mentoring pair to mentoring pair.
So that leads us naturally to a more specific line of questioning, which should help you determining what kind of mentoring relationship will be best for you and your goals right now?
What are you looking for in a mentor?
You’ve already seen that a mentor can be many things to you. To start narrowing your focus, it’s helpful to consider which area of your life is both most important to you right now and in which you are either least satisfied or most ambitious. In other words, which area of your life do you most want to focus your growth on?
Typically, I break this decision down into seven categories:
- Career – how you make your living (or how you would like to make a living in the future)
- Spiritual – your religion, faith, or regular practices (such as meditation) that refocus your energy on what matters most
- Relationships – the relationships you have with your family and friends that make up your core support system
- Physical – your diet, sleep, and exercise regimen that keep you in your best shape and doing your best work
- Financial – the earning, spending, and savings goals that will allow you to live your ideal lifestyle, support your family, and give to causes you believe in
- Learning – the experiences, books, groups, practices, and formal learning that will allow you to reach your career or personal goals
- Travel & Adventure – the travels, trips, excursions, and fun asides that bring that spark of fun and inspiration to your life (if you scoff at this, I would venture to say that this is the most important area of focus for you right now)
Based on the list above, you can ask yourself these three questions in order to determine what you are looking for in a mentor:
- Which of the seven areas is most important to you right now?
- What is/are your goal(s) in this area of your life?
- What are the values you want to display in chasing your goals OR what do you want people to say about the way you reached your goals?
Hint: you’re looking for a mentor who a) knows something about your area of focus; b) has achieved what you hope to achieve; and c) represents the kind of person you want to emulate.
Where can you find a mentor?
Believe it or not, potential mentors don’t walk around with sharpie on their foreheads or signs on their backs that read, “Mentor for grabs.” If that’s the case, then how do you find a great mentor that can help you reach your goals?
The good news is that potential mentors are everywhere. You can start by looking around at your existing network, including:
- Friends and family
- Colleagues who work for your employer
- Connections on Linkedin
- Your parents’ friends and connections on LinkedIn
- Alumni of your university, college, or specific organizations of which you have been a part
My guess is that if you take a deep dive look into your existing network you will be able to find a great candidate to become a mentor for you. As you consider the possibilities, ask yourself these three questions:
- Of the people in your existing network, which of your connections have accomplished what you hope to accomplish?
- Of those who have accomplished what you hope to accomplish, which of them display the values you want to emulate?
- If your friends, family, and colleagues could liken you to just one of these people, who would you be most proud to be compared to?
This should whittle the list down quite a bit and allow you to focus in on the 1 or 2 people that are most likely to be a good mentor for you right now. You may want to rank the list of people with the accomplishments and values you admire in order to have a backup plan if your first choice or two do not turn out to be a good fit.
How do you get started with a mentoring relationship?
By now you’ve determined why you want and need a mentor and you have a list of potential candidates. Now your job is to get introduced and begin the mentoring relationship.
This process is fairly straightforward, and at no point does it involve that awkward question, “Will you be my mentor?”
Instead, if you do not know your potential mentors, you need to get introduced by a mutual connection. An email or call to your mutual connection asking for an introduction should be short and simple. Tell them you have set some goals related to [name the area of your life you chose earlier] and you understand that [potential mentor] could be a great person to help you grow in that direction. Be sure they know you will only be asking for a coffee or lunch meeting.
Once you have been introduced, or if you already know your potential mentor, use one of these two networking letter templates to place a call or email to your potential mentor.
Repeat this process for the top three ranked potential mentors on your list. Your goal should be to meet with three potential mentors for a one hour coffee or lunch meeting in order to gauge if:
- you are a good personality fit
- your potential mentor has the time to meet on an ongoing and regular basis
- your potential mentor has the desire to meet again
If you believe that all three of the circumstances above exist, then at the end of this first meeting, you should make a very simple request to meet again the following month.
Be sensitive to the answer and use your emotional intelligence to interpret the answer. A “no” can mean many things, as can a “yes.” No can mean that the next month is a terribly busy month, or it can mean that the person actually does not have time to meet regularly. Yes can mean they are eager to continue the conversation, or it can mean they are reluctantly agreeing because you have put them on the spot.
To avoid putting your contact off, be sure to give them an out. A simple statement should take care of the entire interaction, such as, “Would you be willing to meet again next month to continue this conversation? I understand you are busy, so if it does not fit your schedule, I understand.”
What should you give to the relationship?
We’ll talk in a moment about what you should expect to get from the mentoring relationship, but I start with giving for a reason. In my experience (and there is research to back it up), focusing on giving rather than receiving actually results in more benefit to you in the long run.
In Adam Grant’s Give and Take he tells us all about the impressive benefits of giving without regard for receiving equal benefit from the same person. Mentoring relationships work the exact same way.
The first thing you should focus on giving in a mentoring relationship is gratitude. For the first five meetings (at a minimum) you should plan on writing a handwritten thank you note that thanks your new mentor for her time and gives brief mention of the lessons, learning, and advice you took away from the meeting.
In addition to thank you notes, many mentors will continue to meet with you for the simple satisfaction of giving advice that you take seriously and benefit from. Knowing that they are helping a person learn and grow is often the only benefit a mentor wants from the relationship. To reinforce this benefit to them, be sure to send a follow up email when you see success as a result of applying their advice to your own life. Share your learning and results from applying it.
Finally, in some cases, you may have to opportunity to provide introductions or help out on a project for your mentor. These opportunities may be few and far between, but they are incredible opportunities to directly benefit your mentor and prove your ability to provide value. At the end of each of your meetings, be sure to ask your mentor how you can help them. Most people will not openly ask for help unless they have been asked if they need anything. Be that kind of person – it build mutual respect and trust when you are willing to offer your help.
What can you expect to get from the relationship?
Approaching your mentoring relationship with a bias towards giving is a key to success, but you can also expect to receive benefit from the relationship.
In order to get the most out of each meeting, you should bring a list that includes the following:
- Your commitments from the last meeting – what did you say you would do or accomplish?
- Your current goals
- Your current challenges in reaching your goals
- Areas in which you need help, resources, connections, etc
First and foremost, you should ask your mentor to hold you accountable to your best intentions. At the end of each meeting, you should commit to a list of action items based on the advice you have received. This should become the first item on your list for the next meeting, and you should report back on what you accomplished (and what you didn’t) as compared to your commitments. Always ask your mentor to check in on your commitments and to help you work through why you did or did not achieve what you set out to do.
You can also expect to receive valuable advice and feedback from your mentor. The more open you are with your mentor about your goals and challenges, the more likely he will be to provide valuable advice. Show up to each meeting prepared to share this information and to ask intelligent questions in order to get great feedback.
For example, if you have a goal or idea for a new project, don’t just ask, “What do you think?” Instead, ask, “Based on your experience, what do you think I should be aware of in taking on this project? Where are the gaps in my knowledge that I need to beware of? What are potential drawbacks of pursuing this particular project?” These kinds of questions will help you make the most of your mentors’ immense base of knowledge and experience.
The third benefit you can expect to receive is to be called out on your bullshit. We all tend to make excuses for ourselves from time to time, take on a victim mentality, or blame our lack of performance on external circumstances. When we slip up, the best way to get back on track is to have someone that cares enough to call us out. Your mentor can play that role if you ask him to, especially as you grow more comfortable with one another over time.
Fourth, you can expect that your mentor will be able to provide connections to people and resources that can help you reach your goals. Being clear about what help you need will help your mentor sift through his mental rolodex to provide the help you need. However, if your mentor does not offer help once you have clearly stated what you need, do not press. He may not be willing to use relationship or political capital to help you reach this particular goal. That’s ok. He’ll be able to help at some point in the future.
Finally, you can expect to grow a valuable and lasting friendship with your mentor over time. I have several mentors with whom I have been meeting for over 4 years and they have become some of my closest advisors and friends.
How many mentors should you have?
Three years ago I wrote an article about having a “personal board of advisors,” which is a powerful piece of advice I received from one of my mentors. He told me that I should have a group of advisors and mentors who constantly help push me to reach my goals in all areas of my life. By doing so, I will ensure that I am able to receive multiple points of view on key decisions when necessary, am continuously learning new things, and have a group of people I can count on.
My suggestion is to start out by establishing one mentoring relationship. As you solidify that relationship, seek out two to four more mentors that can offer alternative perspectives or help you grow in other areas of your life.
Maintaining multiple mentoring relationships can be challenging, and sometimes time-consuming. However, the long-term benefits of having multiple people in your corner will be incredibly valuable.
When is it time to end a mentoring relationship?
If you stick with a mentoring relationship long enough, there may come a time when regular meetings are no longer as beneficial as they once were. At this point, it may be the best decision for both you and your mentor to end the mentoring relationship and stay in touch by other means.
Here are several indications it might be time to end the mentoring relationship:
- If you are no longer learning and growing as a result of your meetings
- If you have reached the goals you set out to reach through the relationship
- If your priorities or goals have changed entirely since you began the relationship
- If you have moved locations, making it difficult to meet regularly
- If you have changed jobs or focus areas in your career in such a way that it makes it much more difficult for your mentor to offer valuable advice
Professionalism and direct communication is often the best way to end a series of regular meetings. After a successful mentoring relationship, there is nothing to be ashamed of in pursuing new relationships and/or goals. Thank your mentor for his time and tell him that you would like to meet less regularly. Explain your reasoning clearly, and offer to help your mentor going forward in any way you can. While it may hurt his feelings initially, over time a good mentor will respect your self-awareness and decision making process.
When is it time to become a mentor?
While it is incredibly important to have a mentor, now is as good a time as any to become a mentor. There is always somebody with less experience, knowledge, and connections than you, which means you can be a valuable mentor to that person. Seek them out and take the lead in the conversation if necessary. Use the tips from this article to structure your meetings and conversations in a way that is valuable to both of you.
I think you’ll be surprised by how capable you are and how rewarding the relationship will be.
Take some time over the next month to find a mentor or mentee – it will be well worth your time. Let me know how it goes for you and if you have any questions I’ll be happy to answer them.
If you have your own tips for creating a valuable and lasting mentoring relationship, share them in the comments.
Photo: Contemplative Grandfather by Suanie on Flickr
Extra Reading (In order of return on time invested):
- How to Find a Business Mentor (Inc.com)
- Every Man Needs a Man Mentor by Brett & Kate McCay (The Art of Manliness)
- How to Find (and Keep) a Mentor in 10 Not-So-Easy Steps by Jeff Goins (GoinsWriter.com)
- How to Find a Mentor by Corbett Barr (Think Traffic)
- How to Find and Keep Your Ideal Mentor by Lisa Nicole Bell (Startup America Partnership)
- How to Find a Mentor by Kerry Hannon (Forbes)
- How to Find a Mentor to Help You go Further, Faster by Michael Hyatt (MichaelHyatt.com)
- How to Find a Mentor and Why You Need One by Lindsay Olson (US News)
- How to Find a Mentor for Your Startup by Scott Gerber (Readwrite.com)