What is a mentor? A mentor is someone you admire sets aside time to meet, sharing how they accomplished their goals, cheering you on and giving you feedback and advice. The right mentoring relationship can be a powerful tool for professional growth — it can lead to a new job, a promotion or even a better work-life balance.
One of the trickiest things about mentoring is that it’s often informal, and that can make it difficult to find an entry point. Since we know that women and people of color face discrimination at higher rates than white men do in certain fields like STEM, it can be especially helpful for women and people of color to intentionally seek out mentors.
Here’s how to find a good mentor, make the ask and make it work (formally):
1. Finding a Good Mentor
Know your goals (both short and long term). What do you want to accomplish professionally in the next three months? Can you do it in your current role or will it require you to switch jobs? The more specific you are with your goals, the easier it will be to find the right mentor. One strategy to create effective, easily achievable goals is to work SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timebound. Envisioning your dreams this way allows you to break down lofty ideas into individual goals that are easier to accomplish through short-term steps.
Who do you look up to? Whose job would you like to have in the next five, 10 or 15 years? Is this person inside or outside your workplace? Who is your immediate role model where you work? Keep a running list of the jobs and people you are visualizing. Consider an identity-based mentor in your organization, especially if you need to talk about issues you’re facing as an underrepresented person in your professional surroundings.
Do the research. You may or may not be able to ask one of those people to be your mentor, but what are the stepping stones to get to someone in a similar position? Take notes on the path that person took to get to where they are today.
Be cognizant of your existing network. The more aware someone already is of your work and abilities, the more effective they will be at mentoring you. Think about whether someone is already informally mentoring you — can you ask them to help you? If someone isn’t aware of your work or you’ve never talked to them, look for a connection. Make sure the person you are thinking about also has the expertise you’re looking for. (We’ll talk more about this in the next section.)
Recognize the difference between a mentor and a sponsor. For example, mentors give advice on but can’t give you a new job, raise, or promotion. In contrast, sponsors can do that for you. They can be a boss, recruiter, or even employer in a new industry. Don’t expect mentors to be sponsors, but they can put you in touch with sponsors. Mentors can also be in your life for the long-term, while sponsors are often more short-term.
2. How to Make the Ask
Have an elevator pitch ready. Be clear of your goals and why you think this person is the right mentor for you. Be up front about your time-commitment, what you’re willing to put into the relationship and what you expect from them. If you’re clear about what you need from the start, communication will flow smoothly. You can even practice this elevator pitch to other people before asking the possible mentor.
Make sure it’s the right fit before asking. You can feel this out by having informal meetings where you discuss your goals and trajectory, before asking them to be your mentor.
Mention what you like about the person’s work, especially if you’ve never met. Say your boss introduced you to a possible mentor and neither of you know each other. Do the research about the possible mentor’s work. Then open with what you like about their work. That will show that you have a thoughtful approach.
If it’s a cold email, it’s okay to start with the informational interview ask. But again, be specific about what you like about the person’s work and why you want to meet. Why is talking to you worth their time? If you’ve never met before, consider starting with a phone call and work with the person’s schedule. Keep in mind that informational interview requests are common. The way you stand out, as we mentioned before, is showing you did the research about their career and being specific and honest about what you’re asking of them.
Before COVID-19, asking for mentorship was best in-person. Video is just fine now. When you feel someone is the right fit, do your best to make the ask with more than just a phone call or email. It shows that you will be open to feedback in the long term.