When I was just starting my career, I landed a job at a pharmaceutical company. It had thousands of employees and a gigantic campus, making the work and company culture overwhelming. Thankfully, I had a mentor who was a long-time veteran of the company. She helped me navigate through some of the office politics at play, which profoundly helped my work performance. Her assistance still pays off, a decade later.
Regardless of what you’re trying to accomplish in life, working with a mentor can help you get there faster. Finding the right person to work with isn’t always easy, though. Not only do you have to seek out someone who is willing to mentor you, but you also have to understand how the relationship works and what you can expect from it.
How a mentor can help you
A mentor is someone who shares their wisdom and expertise with you. A good mentor motivates you to stretch yourself. They also provide candid, constructive feedback, even when you don’t ask for it.
As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” As an expert in your desired field, a mentor can see things that you might miss. They’ll also be able to share their own past mistakes so that you can learn to avoid them.
Most importantly, a good mentor will help you get to where you want to be in your own way. Share your vision of how you want to improve, and your mentor can help you set concrete goals to make it happen.
Choosing the right person
We all have role models, but you don’t necessarily want to work with someone who doesn’t know what you need. Instead of working with someone you simply admire, you’ll want to find a mentor who is accomplished in the area in which you want to grow.
For example, if you want to develop your career in business, seek out people who have made a successful career in business. If you want to strengthen your faith, make a list of people you know who have shown spiritual characteristics you aspire to.
Once you’ve found one or more potential mentors, be direct and humble as you ask for their help. Ideally, a shared connection will introduce you to your potential mentor. However, if you don’t know anyone, sending an email or LinkedIn messages is okay, too. Mentoring someone requires a lot of time and effort, so don’t take it personally if someone declines.
Talk with each potential mentor about their coaching and communication style. For example, if you avoid confrontation like the plague, it’s unlikely that you’ll want to work with someone who thrives on it.
It’s always best to chat with a few potential mentors before settling on one. This gives you an opportunity to compare your options and decide who fits your needs and personality best.
For me, it was easy to get swept up into the pharmaceutical company culture, where there was big salaries and high bonuses. People spent their whole bonuses on new luxury cars and Louis Vuitton luggage. I felt like I needed to keep up, which wiped out my budget. My mentor nudged me back into reality, convincing me of the need to save and plan for the future. And she reminded me of my distinct privilege and the need to give back to the community.
How to work with a mentor
Once you’ve found someone who is willing to mentor you, it’s essential to understand how your new relationship will work. For starters, since you’re the person asking for help, it’s your responsibility to plan the meetups and drive the discussions. Don’t wait for them; send a request with a specific date, time, and location to meet. Be cognizant of their time if it’s during the week; they likely won’t have an hour or two to chat. A short 30-minute meeting over coffee is often best, at least at first.
When you meet, come prepared with an agenda and questions. Your mentor won’t know how best to help you without your guidance. If you don’t know where to start, think about areas you’re struggling with, like building your executive presence, and ask their advice on how to improve. Or if you’re struggling to find that first job, think about the kind of work you want to do and ask your mentor for suggestions.
Start small and build your relationship over a few short sessions; most meetings should be between 30 and 60 minutes, at the most. Then work together to come up with a reasonable cadence for getting together. That can fluctuate depending on your needs and your mentor’s schedule. If you have a job you’re happy with, but still want to learn and grow, a monthly meeting is probably all you need. But if you’re job searching or have an area you’re really struggling with, you might need meetings once a week.
Lastly, look for ways to make your relationship a mutually beneficial one. You likely won’t be able to trade tips and coaching equally, but there might be something you can offer in return for your mentor’s help. Ask potential mentors what that might be. It will set a good tone for the relationship.
Reevaluate your relationship often
The last thing you want is to waste your and your mentor’s time. Every once in awhile, step back and evaluate whether your mentor-mentee relationship is working. Are you getting the help you need or are you ready to learn from someone new?
Don’t drop your mentor immediately if you find that things aren’t going perfectly, though. Discuss your concerns and have an open dialogue about it.
Again, if things don’t work out, don’t take it personally. There are plenty of other people who might be willing to take you under their wing. If one doesn’t work out, move on to the next.
Finding the right mentor isn’t easy, but once you do, you’ll begin to make more meaningful progress on your goals.