It used to be that you only had to dodge questions about whether you had a significant other at family gatherings, but nowadays you get to work and everyone wants to know about the status of that other must-have relationship. Do you have a mentor? What kinds of things do you do together? Does your mentor have a friend who can be my mentor? Maybe we could all double sometime.
OK, I’m exaggerating slightly. But there is some truth to the fact that people spend an awful lot of energy finding a mentor because they’re “supposed to.” Then, once they have one, they think: “Now what?”
Don’t get me wrong: Having a combination advisor, friend, and powerhouse in your professional corner can be the absolute best. But finding one is only the first step. Next you need to build the relationship. Here are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind.
Do Figure Out What You Want
Mentoring comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s not all meeting for coffee and reporting back. In fact, some pairs may never meet in person and only stay in touch over email. That can be great if you’re super busy—and not so great if you have trouble expressing yourself in writing.
The fellowship program I managed had a mentoring component, and we had potential participants (on both sides) fill out a survey where they selected their ideal relationship. People could choose how often they’d like to be in touch, how they’d like to be contacted, and why they're interested in having a mentor—whether it’s to connect with someone local or to connect with someone with proven success in a specific industry.
Be clear on your priorities by thinking through these questions before reaching out to someone. That’s not to say the other person will be available to meet for lunch once a week to discuss career goals just because you’d like that, but even approximations of this (i.e., yes, you’re hoping for someone with local knowledge and no, you don’t care about the industry as much as you care about general success) are a good starting point.
Don’t Make Up Problems
So, you meet up with your mentor whose first question is “How can I help?” Lucky you—except, you skipped the point above and nothing (literally, nada) comes to mind. You don’t want to spend your first meeting or phone call talking about the weather, so you think of a problem your connection might be interested in solving. Before you can stop yourself, the words, “My boss is a jerk!” or “I have no meaningful work,” shoot out of your mouth.
But in real life, your supervisor is fine and you like your job. However, you asked, so, you now listen to you contact give 20 minutes of his best advice. And then, in every future meeting, he inquires how this problem is going. While you’re ostensibly bonding with this person, it’s not genuine.
If you don’t have a good answer, a better bet is to flip the question back around. Ask her to discuss the career path she took. Is there something she wishes she’d known at your stage? Has anything she’s recently read or learned shifted her approach? Tell her you’d love to be able to connect and share ideas with someone you admire.
Do Ask What They’d Like From the Relationship
Along those lines, there may be categories of advice that your mentor is particularly excited to pass on. Maybe he’s an expert negotiator, or maybe she loves closing a sale and hopes to share that knowledge with you.
However, it’s old-fashioned to assume that the mentor-mentee relationship is a one-way street. You’ll want to follow up and ask how you can make your conversations mutually beneficial. Come prepared with things you think you excel at: Maybe you’re both runners and you’ve discovered a great trail, or perhaps someone you know is throwing a killer event and you can extend an invitation.
Offering to return the favor is more than good manners. It keeps the relationship balanced and can add to its longevity.
Don’t Be Overzealous
One mistake people can make with a new mentor is to be so excited at the prospect of someone who thinks like a supervisor, chats like a friend, gives pep talks like a family member, and commands a room like a boss that they suddenly want to go this person for everything. Instead of asking your manager a work-related question, venting to your roommate, chatting with your mom on your walk to work, and reaching out across your network when you need a favor, you see this new shiny person as a one-stop shop.
In reality, your mentor should be the person you go to when you need someone outside of those traditional relationships. Say you’re having an issue at work that you share with your friend, but you still can’t quite figure out how you’ll broach it with your boss. Or you have a new idea for your side gig and you’re uncertain if it will work and could really use a fresh perspective. Those are the sorts of things a trusted advisor can really help with.
A good rule of thumb to make sure you’re not overdoing it is to echo the pace and frequency with which he or she reaches back. If you share a meal and reach out a couple of weeks later to schedule your next chat, does he suggest you meet the following week—or next quarter? I once had a mentor who I spoke with by phone with every week. It just sort of happened that way: If we hadn’t chatted, odds are I’d get a call on Friday. But this is by no means the norm—talking a few times a year, or even on an as-needed basis is also completely normal.
If you have no idea if you’re reaching out too much (or not enough), simply ask if meeting more or less frequently would work better for him or her.
Everyone wants to have a mentor. But remember, it’s not just getting one that matters—you’ll also want to build a lasting relationship.