Mentors, mentors, mentors. Everyone’s always talking about them but no one really seems to know how to get a good one.
Thanks to the internet we have more information than ever — but not any more wisdom.
Contacting mentors is one of the things I think you should do every week.
Whenever I say that, the response is the same: How?
Here’s what research and experts have to say about picking, contacting and maintaining a relationship with the right mentor, A-to-Z. Strap in.
I’ve posted about what the most successful people in the world all have in common. One of those things is mentors.
For his book Creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed over 91 of the most creative people in the world (including 14 Nobel prize winners.)
What did they have in common? By the time they were college age, almost every one of those earthshakers had an important mentor:
10,000 hours of deliberate practice makes you an expert but what makes you dedicate 10,000 hours to something in the first place?
As Adam Grant of Wharton explains, the answer is great mentors.
Not worried about accepting a prize in Stockholm or being a chess grandmaster?
Okay, brass tacks here: Research shows mentors mean promotions and career satisfaction.
What Do Mentors Really Do?
Mentors generally offer three things.
1) They give career guidance.
2) It’s not all about work. Mentors provide much needed emotional support when times get tough.
3) Mentors also often act like a role model, giving you something to emulate and aspire to.
Some people might say, “I don’t need to worry about all this. My company has a mentorship program.”
Yeah, too bad that program sucks.
And what about your greater career? If you’re a star do you think your company is going to tell you when it’s time to move on to greener pastures?
You need objectivity and you need someone who can give you advice that’s valuable over the long haul.
So you need to get your own mentor. Here’s how.
How To Pick A Mentor
I’ve done an entire post on selecting the best mentor for you. You can read thathere.
The quick and dirty version comes courtesy of Dan Coyle’s masterpiece The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:
The research also shows it’s good to look for someone who has a resume that shows grit.
And, believe it or not, happier mentors are better mentors.
Know yourself and what you need. If you don’t have these answers, a mentor can’t help you much.
Aspirational figures must “fit” with your career goals.
Role models who aren’t relevant or whose achievements are unattainable can make you 22% less satisfied with your career.
Though I’m using mentor in the singular, I encourage you to be polygamous here — you need multiple mentors to cover the various areas of life.
More on how to select the perfect mentor here.
How To Contact A Potential Mentor
A referral from a mutual friend or contact is gold. But not everyone will be able to get that.
So what do you say in that first email?
You still want to leverage the power of some kind of similarity to build a connection.
What’s that mean? Ways you two are similar that aren’t obvious. And this has scientific underpinnings:
So you establish some kind of common ground. The next thing to keep in mind is equally important:
Wasting a mentor’s (or potential mentor’s) time in any form is a mortal sin.
Not only is it annoying, it shows you lack basic skills. It screams to a mentor, “This person isn’t ready for your help.”
Writing a multi-page email to a very busy person doesn’t show you’re serious — it shows you’re insane.
So respect their time and start small. Asking good questions is a great way to build a relationship.
But the key word here is “good” questions.
NEVER ASK A MENTOR A QUESTION GOOGLE CAN EASILY ANSWER FOR YOU.
Carve this in stone. Scrawl it in blood above your desk. Get a tattoo.
There is an old expression: “When the student is ready, the master appears.”
If you’re doing everything you can to advance your career, getting a mentor won’t be too hard. Why?
Because if you’re doing awesome work, people more successful than you will notice and want to help you.
If they don’t, you’re doing something wrong.
What, personally, makes me want to go the extra mile for someone?
When they demonstrate they have explored every conceivable avenue and they can go no further without me.
Seeing someone has done everything in their power shows they’re smart, they didn’t waste my time, and they’re resourceful.
Most mentors see themselves that way, so guess what? The two of you now have something very important in common.
Finally, don’t mention the M word — mentor. You wouldn’t ask for marriage on the first date, would you?
What does an intro email look like?
Here’s a quick breakdown of some of my thoughts meshed with his insights.
- Subject line: I like to use the name of a mutual friend or contact that referred me. Otherwise, use something you share in common (alumni of the same school, etc.) or something attention getting.
- First thing: introduce yourself and clarify the connection you mentioned in your subject line.
- Politely flatter. It’s appropriate — if they weren’t awesome why would you want their help? It shows you took the time to learn about them. Highlight uncommon commonalities.
- Be clear, but polite, about what you want. Short but not blunt. Do not waste their time.
- Show you’ve done your homework. Can your questions be Googled? If so, to the ninth circle of Hell with you.
- The easier you make it for them to give a yes, the more likely you are to get a yes. You’ll schedule around them. You’ll drive to them. You’ll bring coffee.
- Proofread, edit, and make sure it’s brief. Take the time. A hastily sent grammatical abomination from your iPhone is a terrible idea. And if the length of your email elicits a gasp, a sigh or a comparison to the Game of Thrones books, you’re not done editing.
How To Handle The First Meeting
So they agreed to talk to you or meet with you. Great. I’m not going to tell you to be on time, be polite, and brush your teeth.
If you require that kind of advice you don’t need this article, you need preschool.
- Ask good questions. Good questions show you are smart and have done your homework, and make the mentor feel that they offer unique value.
- Other than asking good questions, shut up. Ryan says “The point of an accomplishment mentor is not for you to give them your opinion.”
- Don’t ask for a job. This makes people feel awkward and undoes all the good work you’ve done so far.
- Be likable. Here’s more on making people like you, using Dale Carnegie’s classic advice and making good conversation.
- Again, never waste their time. Keep it short, hit your marks, create an impression you can build on and make an exit.
Do those and you’ll be in good shape. Of course, right after this is where most people totally drop the ball.
How To Maintain A Mentor Relationship
Many people send a great email, have a great meeting… and then they vanish off the face of the Earth and let the connection go cold.
And the inevitable question people ask me: What do I say when I touch base with them?
After that first meeting, did you actually take any of their advice? (If not, stop reading now and just go watch cartoons, okay?)
The best answer, in my opinion, is simple:
Do what they said, get results, and let them know they made a difference. This is what mentors want.
If they engage you can follow up with:
You want these interactions to be conversational back and forths, not one-offs you need to regularly hit with a conversation defibrillator to keep the relationship alive.
And try to reconnect with them in person or on the phone at least annually.
Now Do It
I don’t know where I’d be without the mentors who helped shape me.
So no more “I don’t know how to do that” excuses. You have the pieces to the puzzle now.
You cannot — and should not — go it alone. You have much to learn from those who came before you.
Go back to the top of this post, follow the steps and get started.
As Eleanor Roosevelt once said:
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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.