When I started my Masters Degree and my three jobs last year, I was excited and motivated, but I was also a bit overwhelmed. I had no real idea about how the professional world worked, and I didn’t really know where to start. I would chat with a couple of older students in my masters classes, and they would give me tips on how to dress for an interview, and how to apply for an interview, and without even asking them, they were my first mentors, they gave me insightful advice that I would not have found from any other source.
Most people don’t just find a great mentor, and we have to put ourselves out there to find people we respect and ask for guidance. And when I first wanted to do that, I was so nervous I almost gave the whole plan up. I mean, asking a total stranger , or even someone you admire and look up to for help and advice sounds like a literal nightmare. What if I was annoying them? Why would they want to talk to me? What if it hurt my professional prospects?
After all, why would a stranger, who is likely very busy and has important stuff to do, give up time to give me free advice on a career? Especially at the start?
But I was pleasantly surprised, in my experience, most mentors enjoy talking to you, and contributing to your growth, the opportunity to pass on wisdom hard won and a chance to reflect on their own success. Its a good ego boost I guess, and if you are following my method, they get a free coffee or food out of it.
But first, you have to convince them to help you.
Once you have identified someone who you want to be your mentor, there are a bunch of different ways to go about asking them, and will give you the best chance of them saying yes. In my year or so of mentor experiments, I learnt a couple of things;
When I was looking for people to ask for a coffee chat, I was overwhelmed to say the least, but I decided to aim high, I mean the worst thing that could happen is that they would say no. I emailed a person who has my dream job, and he replied! We had coffee, and he gave me invaluable advice about the industry and career progression, but it never would have happened if I had chickened out and not pressed send (which nearly happened).
Aiming high can be terrifying, but these people usually got these roles because people like them, and they are happy to help others. The worst thing that happens is that they say no, and the best thing that can happen is that you meet someone really inspiring who gives you actionable and personalised career advice.
Pick someone who is honest with you
Great leaders are great communicators, and picking someone who will be honest with you is a great step forward. One of my mangers who I bought coffee for in exchange for advice was brutally honest about the sexism she had faced in the industry, and had experienced, practical advice for me if I ever faced it. It gave me a good idea of the workplace I was entering into, and helped me to make an informed decision about my future.
Pick someone you will have a connection with
Mentorships are easier if you have a connection with the person. It is easier to emulate (or mentor) someone who has similar strengths and skills as yourself, and if you need to spend some time looking for the right person, thats okay. Finding someone who you connect with in a meaningful way will help you to create a mentor relationship that is rewarding and positive.
Offer them something:
All the mentor meetings I have had have started with me offering food or coffee, which is a great way for the initial meeting to not be awkward, and gives the potential mentor something out of the meeting. All the advice I have gotten has been worth way more than the coffee and cake I have paid for it, and I could consider it an investment in my career development if I wanted to be really extra about it.
As someone who has done this with about a 50% success rate, I will tell you that ‘cold calling’ is TOUGH. I have found the best way to cold call is to email them asking if you could take them out to coffee and pick their brain about their career, and if that gets a response, yay! Then you have to fit in with their schedule, I mean, they are doing you a favour, and ask them interesting questions about how they got to where they are.
If that meeting goes well, and you feel like you gel well with this person, try and schedule a follow up, and if you don’t gel with them, no harm no foul.
I don’t think asking someone to me a mentor the first time you meet them is a good option because you don’t know them, and you don’t know if they have what you need in a mentor.
Let the relationship mature gradually
It’s jarring to straight out ask someone to be your mentor, mentoring is organic, and it’s better to let it grow and mature like any other relationship based on trust and respect.
Questions to ask
Be prepared: Don’t look on google 5 minutes before the interview, prepare interesting questions that will help you get the best advice, and will be interesting for your potential mentor. In my experience, it helped the both of us get the most out of the experience.
Have you contacted a professional mentor?
How did it go?