Guest authored by Judy Robinett, author of How to Be a Power Connector: The 5+50+100 Rule for Turning Your Business Network into Profits (McGraw-Hill, 2014)
I really like Dilbert— Scott Adams’ dry take on the ins and outs of corporate life always makes me laugh. Not long ago Adams did a series on mentoring, where engineer Wally seeks out the company’s CEO and asks him to be his mentor. “Yes I will!” the CEO replies. “You are wise to ask because it shows you have the drive to succeed.”
Of course, since it’s the world of Dilbert, the mentoring relationship goes downhill from that point, but the series brings up a number of questions about mentoring relationships at work. How do you find a mentor? How do you ask someone to be your mentor? And what can you do to ensure that your prospective mentor agrees to take you on?
Let’s start with the reasons to have a mentor. Mentors can show you the ropes and/or give feedback and advice on your work, job, profession, or career. They can serve as caring yet impartial sounding boards and guides to help you navigate the complexities of your company or business in general. If they are well placed in your company or industry, mentors also can be sponsors, who can use their influence to secure your advancement.
With all of these factors in play, you can see why it’s important to select the right mentor for your particular situation, company, or career. Start by asking yourself what kind of help you would like right now from a mentor. Do you want coaching or advice? Guidance about your particular company or business? An ally who can recommend you for projects or assignments to help further your career? The more specific you are about your reasons for approaching a mentor, the easier it will be to choose the right individual who can provide what you need.
Second, identify several people whom you believe could be good mentors in those areas. It is possible to find a mentor who is at your same level in the corporation or business—the manager of a different department if you are a manager, for example, or a CFO from another company if you’re a CFO. However, most mentors tend to come from a higher level in your particular business, company, or industry. A C-suite executive might wish to be mentored by the company’s president, or a small business owner may see a mentor from the ranks of successful medium-sized business owners in the community.
Once you have a list of possible mentors, do a little research about these people to determine if they’ve mentored others in the past, and then discover their current interests, passions, and projects. Get to know your potential mentors as if they might be the most important connections you could have.
Next, choose one potential mentor you wish to approach. But unlike Wally in Dilbert, be a little more elegant than simply walking up to the CEO and asking him or her to mentor you. Instead, think of your request as the final stage in a campaign to bring yourself to your mentor’s notice by adding value first. How can you help the mentor with any or his or her current interests, passions, and projects? Can you volunteer to help out? Send an article or resource that might be of interest? Put the mentor in touch with one of your connections that could open new doors? Remember the principle of always doing two favors before you make a request. This will put you on your mentor’s radar in a positive way and make it more likely he or she will say yes.
Finally, make your request for mentorship simple and clear. Outline exactly what you are asking of the mentor: weekly meetings, introductions, coaching, access to projects that may help advance your career, etc. Let them know how valuable the mentorship will be to you and how you plan to make use of this gift to advance the company’s objectives (or whatever projects or interests the mentor considers important). Mention how you will be adding value to the mentor during this relationship—through your contacts, your perspective, your time, and/or your energy and passion. Then ask for the mentor to let you know if this is agreeable. (Important: Always give your potential mentor a graceful “out” if for whatever reason he or she can’t take you on right now.)
Once the mentor agrees, do your best to continue to add value while you develop the mentoring relationship. Keep the mentor’s passions, interests, and projects top of mind, and make the effort to contribute to the mentor as much as the mentor contributes to you. You may find that this creates greater equality in your relationship, as both of you are bringing your unique assets together with the goal of advancing each other’s goals. In these circumstances of mutual support, mentorship can evolve into friendship and future strategic alliance.
As my friend Anu Bhardwaj, who is the founder of Venture Catalyst Private Equity Partners, says, “The types of people you choose to surround yourself with will ultimately define the caliber of person you will be. For this reason, it is critical to choose your mentors, associates, and close business confidantes wisely.” When you choose your mentors well, add value first, and then approach them in such a way that you make it easy for them to say yes, you’ll be able to create mentoring relationships that can significantly boost your career and business prospects.