One of the questions I get asked most often is how, exactly, do you find a good mentor?
Let’s start with two fundamental questions:
#1 What, exactly are you trying to accomplish?
Pick one. Seriously. What is the most important thing you’re trying to accomplish right now?
Are you preparing for a promotion?
Do you want to develop a new skill?
Are you trying to improve in some human-centric capability like confidence, self-awareness or emotional intelligence?
#2 Why not do it alone?
Be specific. What do you see as lacking in your own experience or knowledge that requires seeking the help or advice from someone else? Are you looking for advice? Or are you looking for guidance? Be careful––these are two very different questions. To be blunt, I’m asking you if you’re looking for a shortcut or someone to give you answers rather than guiding you through a process.
Assuming you want to continue your search, let’s think about who might make the ideal mentor for you right now. In fact…
If you could choose anyone who ever lived to be your mentor––ANYONE! Who would it be?
Don’t limit yourself here. This could be anyone––living or passed. Someone from history you admire, someone you might never believe you could actually meet––or someone in the next office.
Once you have this person in mind, write a very brief note asking them to be your mentor and why you chose them.
Now you’ve got a clear picture of what you’re trying to accomplish, specifically why you think a mentor would be helpful and you’ve got at least a tangible model of the type of person you feel would be your best fit.
Now the power question:
Who do you know or know of that seems most like that dream mentor you just identified?
Now don’t be too tough on your potential real-life mentor! Few of us can stand with the iconic giants of history.
Notice I said someone you know, or someone you “know of.” You might identify someone you have not yet met, but you may know someone who can make an introduction. At the very least, just as you notice more blue cars once you decide you want one, you’ll start to notice more people who have the qualities and qualifications you’re looking for in your mentor.
Your job isn’t over once you’ve picked your ideal mentor. It’s just begun. Now you’ve got to reach out to see if they’re interested, and you’ve got to determine if they are really the right fit.
Does this person have the necessary domain knowledge and experience?
Now be careful with this one. You may be seeking a mentor to help you prepare for a promotion to sales manager. You may, however, have identified that your greatest need is to develop stronger listening skills to help you understand and better lead a team. You may find someone with little or no sales experience who has outstanding skills and vast experience inspiring teams by listening––or someone who is simply an expert in developing listening skills.
It’s up to you to determine just how important domain experience is. If you’re trying to develop specific technical skills, this may be essential.
From what you know of this person, is this someone you respect? Someone you like?
I believe this is an essential quality in a mentor. Mentoring is a very personal experience, you want to know that in regard to character that you’ll be working with someone worthy of your trust and respect. I can tell you from experience that it’s painful and even crippling to discover that a mentor you admire is not the person you thought they were.
And you probably want to work with someone you like––though this is arguably not a deal-breaker. There are many examples of people who are not particularly likable yet can make a tremendous positive impact on the lives of others. Some notable football coaches fall into this category––though many players develop deep respect, admiration and even affection for the coach they once thought of as ruthless!
Is this person recommended?
Find other people who have had a mentoring relationship or at least some personal connection to your potential mentor. Frankly––ask for references!
Now you’re ready to approach your potential mentor. But first a couple of warnings:
#1 You may have to approach more than one prospect. In fact, that’s very likely! You may discover that your first prospect just isn’t a good fit.
#2 Don’t be discouraged if they turn you down.
There are any number of reasons someone may not want to mentor you––or anyone else. They may not have the time to commit. They may have already committed to someone else. They may simply not be comfortable in a mentoring relationship. So…
#3 Be prepared to approach several candidates.
And when you do, there’s one more phase: Ask them some questions. Here are some suggestions…
Do you have the time to work with me? How much time do you think you’ll need to help me achieve my goals?
Are you comfortable keeping our conversations confidential?
From what you know about me so far––do you really feel you can help me reach my goals?
How do you see this process playing out?
This is not an exact science and you may have other priorities you need to factor in to the equation.
Are you seeking a mentor with connections that can help you? Are you seeking introductions and referrals?
Do you want a long-term relationship or are you focused on a specific, time oriented goal?
Are you most comfortable with someone who gives a lot of advice, or someone who will teach with questions?
Do you most want or need encouragement and positive reinforcement––or do you prefer a hard-core, tough love approach?
I’ve saved the most important question for last. This is not a question for your potential mentor––this question is for you.
Are you willing to accept the advice, encouragement, criticism and counsel of your mentor with open ears, eyes, mind and heart?
This does not mean your mentor is always right. You are not surrendering your free will or power to decide what is best for you. Your mentor is not the ultimate authority. Your mentor is a guide.
However––unless you are open and willing to accept your mentor’s input, you may as well be going it alone. You get the most out of a mentoring relationship, you must discipline yourself to take it all in, without getting defensive and without judgement.
The most productive response to a mentor’s contributions is gratitude. You then consider that input along with your own experience, knowledge and wisdom to decide the right course.
As the old proverb goes, you are the author of your own destiny.
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