You’ve been told that without a mentor, you’re lost. Professionally shipwrecked. So it’s no wonder you go around waving flags and throwing up flares, asking someone, anyone, if they would please, please be your Valentine. But there is a better way to go about it, and it doesn’t have to start with a big proposal, a huge ask, and the promise of lifelong partnership - which is daunting for you and them.
In one of my favorite chapters of Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg likens the search for a mentor to a fairytale, “the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming.” We think that our future depends on the right one trotting in on a white horse and whisking us away to a better career.
She writes, “Because it is harder for young women to find mentors and sponsors, they are taking a more active role in seeking them out. And while normally I applaud assertive behavior, this energy is sometimes misdirected.”
Newsflash: Your professional life will happen, mentor or not. And trying to find the “perfect” one for you and then “getting” them to agree to it feels like a tall order. It doesn’t have to be.
So how do you do it? Mentor-seekers take heart. Here’s how to find one, or even many, mentors, without ever having to pop the question.
Think beyond your One Perfect Match. I feel the way about mentors as I do about romantic partners: Yes, they can change your life in wonderful ways, but they’re not all there at the beginning, and they don’t all necessarily last until the end. The search for that One Perfect Mentor can be limiting and put a lot of pressure on you. You’re free to cultivate lots of relationships with people, and be open to and interested in learning from them, without feeling you must choose one.
In her post on Harvard Business Review, Karie Willyerd suggests engaging a mentor on a short-term project so that it’s clear what the boundaries and expectations are for “trying out” your relationship. So that’s also a good route if you want to ask for some focused attention in the short term, and gives you a chance to get to know each other.
Go local. Maybe you read a book or saw a TED talk and thought, I want THAT national best-selling author or speaker to be my mentor. Look, I say aim high, but realize that someone who’s very high profile probably gets lots of requests on that front, and may have less bandwidth in which to support many people’s careers. So while it’s great to reach out to folks you admire, and you may get some very valuable feedback, don’t underestimate the power of going local as you seek out new and valuable connections. Ask yourself: Who in my immediate world, organization, city, would be willing to talk to me from time to time? Then, ask around: Go to events, meetups, and conferences, and seek instead to make real authentic connections, and then follow up on them. One email, one call, one coffee, at a time.
Look outside your organization. In her post on Harvard Business Review, Priscilla Claman says, “Instead of leaning solely on those within your organization, broaden your search. Consider industry and profession-focused mentors. These mentors have a reputation for broad knowledge of more than one company or industry and can be found in many different places.”
I’ve been mentored by people whom I not only never worked for or with, but who aren’t even in my industry. The kind of guidance and perspective a mentor can give you isn’t always job or even industry-specific. People are the same the world over, and where you need the most insight will nine times out of 10 involving handling a tricky interpersonal decision.
Don’t ask for it; earn it. The reason we feel squeamish about asking someone to mentor us at first is because it feels like a favor; you’re not paying them, and you may fear you have nothing to give them. Not true.
Talk to any woman who has mentored another and she’ll tell you that those mentoring relationships are among the most rewarding, they weren’t “favors.” A favor is picking someone up from the airport. But mentor/mentee relationships are different, and mutually beneficial. You may think you’re getting the better deal, but realize that watching their advice and insight help you flourish is worth more than gold.
What this means is that you don’t just call them when you have a problem, for one. You need to show some interest in their lives too! Get curious. Read their articles and books. Reach out just because. And if you’re going to ask for advice, take it. Use it. Report back. The best way to “reimburse” a mentor for her time is to show her how valuable and real it is, and how their wisdom is at work in your life. If someone asks me for my advice and doesn’t take it, I feel that it’s a waste of my time (and theirs).
Resist the urge to label or announce. Here’s something no one ever tells you: Your mentor may never know she was your mentor. Sure, she may kind of know it. But I don’t see the benefit in ever stating it outright.
I’m more likely to keep connecting with, supporting, and showing a vested interest in someone’s career when there is no exchange of rings (or promises, or expectations). All that person knows is that it’s rewarding and fun to connect with you, a person from a different generation and maybe a different business, and that she enjoys watching you grow into your career.
Far better than asking someone to be your mentor, is telling them about it after the fact, maybe after years of a rich and rewarding connection. What I hope for you is that someday you’ll find out you changed someone’s life, too. And maybe you didn’t even know it.