Finding a Mentor: Where to Look & How to Ask

illustration of two people talking at work

By now you probably know all of the benefits and expectations that come along with having a mentor, but there’s still one question: Where and how do you find a mentor? Like most things in your career, you’ll need to put a little work into it and it could take some time, but that time will be well spent. Remember, you’re looking for a quality mentor who is the right fit for you professionally and personally, so you want to be a bit picky in who you approach. 

The process can seem a bit daunting, but breaking it down step by step can help make it a little easier to take in and take action. Here are some tips to help you through the process.

Know what you want in a mentor

Before you start shooting off emails to prospective mentors, you need to have a firm understanding of what you are seeking to get from the relationship. This is going to really help you during the search process because you’ll be able to easily identify potential mentors who would actually meet your needs. Otherwise, you might reach out to someone you really admire, get them to agree to help you, then come to find out they can’t really provide what you need, leaving you to start the process all over again. And that also wastes their time, which is the last thing you want to do with someone gracious enough to give you some of their time and attention.

👉 Not knowing what you need from a mentor is a waste of time, for you and your prospective mentors.

To narrow down your prospects, start small by determining what kind of relationship you’re looking for because this might eliminate a significant number of people right from the start.

Are you looking for something short-term and project-based? In that case, you’d want someone with expertise in that specific area. If you are looking for an ongoing relationship, your qualifiers will be a bit different because you’re looking for someone who will give you guidance and support as you continue to grow your career in a certain direction. 

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Here are some other tips to help you narrow down your prospect list:

Specify your short-term and future goals

Do you hope to eventually change the industry you work in? Are you struggling to get recruiters to respond for a specific type of job? Think about your big picture needs as well as your right-now needs, and determine which you need more guidance in. Remember, you can always establish a long-term relationship later if what you need right now is short-term.

Identify the qualities you want in a mentor

Are you looking for someone who has accomplished a specific milestone in their career that you are hoping to also achieve? Do you want a mentor who is caring and patient? How much time do you want them to invest in you? Basically, sketch out what you believe would be the “perfect” mentor for you, then work off that list when it comes time to pick some prospects.

Think about who you admire

Chances are good that Whitney Wolfe Herd is too busy to be your mentor right now (sorry!), but someone with a similar drive or who works in the same industry as she does may have the time to help you. This is an especially important thing to think about if you’re looking for a long-term mentor.

Where to find a mentor

You now have a clear picture of your ideal mentor, so it’s time to start searching for them. Mentors can be found all over the place, but since it’s not exactly socially appropriate to approach a stranger at Target because they look like they have their life together, search in places where you actually have connections.

The workplace

If you’re trying to advance your career within your own company or your current industry, look in-house at people who are a few steps above your current title. They’re on the path to getting where you want to be, so they may have some useful advice.

Your network

This includes everyone from your LinkedIn connections to your colleagues to your friends and family. Look around at the people you’re already connected with to see if any of them possess the qualities you’re looking for in a mentor. If there isn’t anyone in your immediate circle who fits the profile, ask the people in your network if they know of anyone who may be a good prospect. Also, don’t be afraid to post a LinkedIn status update to let your connections know you’re on the hunt for a mentor because you never know who they’re connected with and can introduce you to.

Online community

Look at the communities you’re a part of online, because there may be some amazing potential mentors in them. That mom advice group you’re part of very likely has fellow working mothers in it, so there’s a high chance there’s someone who can either serve as your mentor or possibly connect you with someone in their network. Remember, it never hurts to ask.

Finding a mentor can take time

For the majority of people, you should expect the process to take anywhere from a month to a year (depending on what kind of relationship you’re looking for). This may seem like an obscene amount of time, but think about it, you’ll have to spend time identifying your needs and goals, creating your mentor profile, doing research on potential mentors in your own network and possibly reaching out to your extended network for help. 

The second half of the identification process, which will also take some time, is evaluating your prospects. At this point, you might have a list of people who you’d love to have mentor you, who expressed interest in mentoring you or who you can connect with through a mutual friend/colleague. You’ll want to rank these people in order of who you’d most like to have mentor you. Remember, you’re probably not going to find a person that perfectly matches your “ideal mentor” profile, but if they meet 75% of your wants and needs, they’re worth considering. 

How to ask

Now that you have your prioritized list, it’s time to move to the next phase, reaching out to your prospects. There is some etiquette you’ll need to follow during this part of the process to ensure you are being respectful and professional.

Reach out to one prospect at a time

It may seem like a dream come true to reach out to 10 prospects at once and have every one of them express interest in mentoring you, but that means you have to respond to 9 of them to let them know you changed your mind on them. At best, this is just awkward, at worst you could burn a bridge.

Flatter them a bit

Keep the message short enough to be digestible, but longer than a sentence. In your request, let them know why you’re asking them specifically to be your mentor (you admire their work or appreciate their expertise). Also, if there is something you can offer them in return, mention it because give and take relationships are much easier to say yes to.

Set a realistic time limit

After you’ve contacted your prospect, give them a realistic amount of time to respond before you follow up or move on. When setting this limit, consider the method you’re using to contact them and how often they check that source. For instance, a phone call has a shorter window than an email, which has a shorter window than a direct message through a community platform.

Follow up once

If you don’t get a response in a reasonable amount of time, send one follow-up message as a gentle reminder that you’re waiting for them. If you still don’t hear back, move on to your next prospect.

Send a thank you

Even if they decline your request, send them a quick response thanking them for taking the time to consider and for getting back to you. 

If your first few requests get declined, don’t get discouraged or take it personally. Their decision isn’t about you or what this person thinks of your career potential, it’s likely that they just don’t have the time to invest in a mentoring relationship right now. While it may be disappointing, it’s for the best because you want a mentor who will be committed to the role, not someone who passively says yes to avoid letting you down. 

The search is worth it 

Yes, it can be a long road to finding a mentor that is a good fit, but it’s worth the time investment. By carefully considering what you need in a mentor and mindfully choosing who to reach out to, you’re much more likely to end up with someone who will help you professionally and who you can really learn from. 

Learn more about RALLY, The Mom Project's Mentorship Program here.  

❣️ What to expect from a mentor

Appropriately setting expectations in a mentor-mentee relationship will benefit both parties and create greater potential for the relationship to succeed. Read more

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