How to Find, Approach, and Engage Mentors

During my 15 years as a marketing professional, I’ve had the honor and privilege of having several mentors. Ranging from college professors to CEOs to CMOs, these people have been instrumental to my career growth and successes. I feel tremendous gratitude to my mentors for the time, commitment, and care they have provided. These days, I pay it forward by mentoring a few people myself.

Great mentors have the experience and knowledge to guide the career of a mentee or protégé. Mentors are invaluable for career guidance on everything from dealing with a tricky work situation, negotiating a job offer, or foraying into an entirely new field. Whether you’re a recent college grad or an experienced professional, having mentors is an invaluable asset to have in your career toolkit.

So how do you get started on forming a relationship with a mentor? Below are a few approaches I have successfully employed.

Determine your mentorship goals – Before seeking out mentors, write down your specific expectations and the role you want mentors to play in your career. Do you need someone who can help your stalled networking attempts, assist you in learning more about a certain industry, or provide guidance on how to be a successful entrepreneur? Are there specific skills or areas of experience in your career that need improvement?

It’s important to clarify your goals and objectives so that both you and your mentors are on the same page with regard to expectations.

Identify a good mentor – When considering a mentor, try to find someone from whom you can learn and who gets satisfaction from helping others in their personal growth. Also, find someone who has found success or is uniquely brilliant in a certain area.

Obvious mentor candidates include college professors, former and current bosses with whom you have great rapport, and thought leaders in your field of work. Be on the lookout for less obvious candidates, such as a leader in your company (or another company) to whom you don’t report directly or a business-savvy relative.

Throughout the process, keep in mind that you are not limited to one mentor; you can have a mentor for every stage of your career or multiple mentors who specialize in a certain area.

Ask for mentorship – Approaching a mentor candidate is easiest when you already know the person and have an existing relationship. Ask this person for a meeting, whether in an office environment or at a coffee shop. Communicate your career goals and identify some key areas you wish to improve. Explain that you admire the potential mentor’s specific experience, skills, and leadership and would like to learn from him/her. There’s nothing wrong with directly asking if this person will be your mentor.

If you don’t personally know someone, it’s a bit trickier but certainly not impossible to approach him/her for mentorship. In my first job, my mentor was an executive in an entirely different department at the company. Prior to the mentorship, I had attended a weekly meeting with this executive and grew to admire his intelligence and leadership. I wasn’t even sure if he knew my name, as we had exchanged only a few words. So I sought to engage him in more conversations by following up with him — either in person or via email — on one or two points he had made during the weekly meetings. Most often, I asked for additional insights. Other times, I added a few ideas of my own. After some months of interactions, I asked him if he would be my mentor and he agreed.

What was effective about my approach? Since I didn’t personally know the person I wanted to mentor me, I first developed a rapport with him. I expressed interest in his vision and hunger to learn more. I also showed that I wasn’t afraid to add ideas of my own. All this conveyed that I was a motivated and ready student, ripe for mentorship.

Other ways you can approach a potential mentor you don’t know personally:

  • Ask a mutual acquaintance to introduce you. Find mutual connections online through LinkedIn, or ask specific people in your network if they know people who can introduce you to the person you’ve targeted as a potential mentor.

  • Contact the person. The most direct way to contact a potential mentor is via email. If you can’t obtain an email address, try reaching out through social networks, such as a Facebook message (if the person’s privacy settings allow for messages outside their contacts) or Twitter (now, you can direct message or DM someone even if they are not following you). If you don’t hear back, follow up. Be persistent but not annoying.

  • Explore ways to cross paths with the person. Is your potential mentor a conference speaker, online influencer, or a member of a professional organization? Attend public events, live and online, where you know this person will be and introduce yourself. I’m not suggesting that you stalk this person but rather, be proactive about opportunities where you have a high likelihood of meeting the person.

Whether or not you are well-acquainted with a potential mentor, the key is to express 1) admiration for what they do 2) enthusiasm for growth and 3) desire to be under the person’s tutelage.

Be a worthy mentee – Successful business people are often very busy; their time is valuable. So when someone agrees to mentor you, realize this is an honor and a privilege. Respect your mentor’s time by adhering to the following:

  • Come prepared. Before meetings with your mentor, plan the topics and questions you want to address so that you have a focused meeting.

  • Ask for advice in moderation. Reaching out too frequently signals you are high-maintenance, needy, and overall too much work for your mentor. As a general rule, reach out for advice on major career decisions — not little, everyday challenges.

  • Be a good listener. Mentors dispense advice. Sometimes you’ll take the advice and sometimes you won’t. Either way, show that you’ve listened and considered the advice, then explain if you’ve opted to take an alternative route.

  • Share your progress. As a mentor, it’s gratifying to see a protege progress. So be sure to tell your mentor about any career wins, especially if the wins are the direct or indirect result of advice from your mentor.

Show your appreciation – Because your mentor is taking time out of his or her schedule and offering you the wisdom they’ve acquired through years of experience, show your appreciation. Thank them frequently. Verbal thank yous are sufficient, but occasionally make an extra effort to send a card or small gift. As your career progresses and you meet more people, you might even introduce your mentor to other mentors or business contacts. Great business professionals always find value in meeting others like them.

Finally, you may reach a point in your career when you’re approached by someone who needs your mentorship. If you find the person to be a worthy protege, pay it forward by agreeing to mentor him/her and pass along learnings from your mentors.

What’s your mentorship story, whether as a mentor or mentee? What are some successes you’ve achieved through a mentorship?