If you take just one thing away from this blog post, let it be this: Never ask someone to become your mentor.
In fact, the last time I was asked that question, I responded, “Can’t we start with lunch, instead?”
What many people don’t realize is that a mentoring relationship can’t be forced. It needs to be based on the chemistry between two people and to develop organically over time.
That’s one reason formal mentoring programs set up by companies and firms often fail. They use arbitrary criteria to pair people up and then expect ‘just-add-water’ results. It doesn’t work that way.
So, what’s the path to finding a mentor? There isn’t a clear one. But, here are some thoughts on positioning yourself so that a mentor will ‘happen’ to you:
Mentors are earned
Doing ‘bang-up’ work on a project that matters to your potential mentor (let’s dub this person ‘PM,’ for short) can be a sure-fire way to get him to invest his time and energy in mentoring you. After all, you’ve made him look good.
But, in order for this to work, the PM first needs to be made aware of your contribution to his project. (Promoting yourself without coming off as Michael Scott is worthy of a blog post all its own. Stay tuned….)
So, what to do if your PM hasn’t put you on a project? Consider taking the initiative and volunteering for his next one. (This must be appropriate, of course: If you’re a trust & estates lawyer and your PM practices admiralty law, you’re probably out of luck.)
Alternatively, set your sights on a PM you come into contact with through other company activities, such as a committee you both serve on or a small(ish) meeting you both regularly attend.
The point here is to find a way to get exposure to your PM so that he will come to know you. You need a real and ‘earned’ connection.
You and your PM need to ‘click’ with each other. Otherwise, neither of you will become invested in the mentoring relationship. If, after making one or two attempts to engage a PM in conversation, he hasn’t shown any interest in you, move on. Other PMs await.
When it comes to mentoring, PMs tend to gravitate toward those who remind them of their younger selves. If you’re a woman seeking a mentor in a male-dominated workplace, that fact won’t help you much. However, you might consider looking for a PM among the subset of men there who have daughters or whose wives have professional careers. They may more naturally identify with you and take an interest in helping you progress.
Also, to enhance your chances of ‘clicking’ with a PM, learn what his interests are — charitable, athletic, child-related, cultural and so forth…. If you genuinely share some of those same interests, try to work them into your conversation. The connection may spark a PM’s willingness to mentor you. Just be careful not to fake it when it comes to shared interests: You’re likely to be caught out in the lie and viewed as a brown-noser.
Don’t expect a ‘pop-up’ mentor. Rather, think of a mentoring relationship as if it were a garden: It needs to grow over time.
In the early stages, limit yourself to asking your PM for guidance on a particular, contained situation. Keep the conversation casual and quick. Later, follow-up to thank him and let him know how his advice contributed toward resolving the situation.
At first, seek advice on situations that involve relatively clear-cut choices. Mentors love problem-solving. Don’t lay angst-ridden, ‘what-should-I-do-with-my-life?’ questions at your PM’s door –- certainly, not at the early stages of your relationship.
Oh, yes: No whining!
Know when to exit
Mentors have their own work lives to tend to. Pay attention to your PM’s body language. Some days, it might be just fine to nab him after the meeting you both attended. Other days, you are risking tire treads on your Armani suit.
Similarly, once you’ve engaged your PM in conversation, stay acutely aware of the cues: What is he signaling with his posture? Eye movements? ‘Fidgets’? Know when the PM wants (but, usually, is too polite) to ‘strike the gong.’ Exit accordingly….
Ask for feedback – then embrace it
Good mentors are interested in making a difference. Their observations on how you might have handled yourself differently (i.e., better) in a particular work situation can be invaluable. So, seek out their perceptions by asking for feedback, couched in versions of these questions: ‘What might I have done differently in [situation X]? Can you suggest some steps I might take to get there next time?’
But, when you ask for feedback, really mean it. Be receptive to what comes back at you. Don’t act hurt, angry, incredulous or any other way that allows your emotions to take over. Instead, listen openly and take in what’s said. Even if the feedback is unfair, it represents at least one person’s perception. That’s valuable information. Wait until later to choose how you want to use it.
Mentoring is a two-way street
Don’t expect the relationship with your mentor to focus exclusively on you. By definition, of course, the relationship is unequal: You’re the one who’s come to the relationship seeking a ‘way forward’ in your work setting.
Nonetheless, you can find ways to ‘give back’ to your mentor. For instance, you might share information that will be useful to him (without, of course, gossiping or breaking confidences). Or you might ‘talk him up’ among your colleagues, which, in turn, could make it easier for him to attract good people to work on his projects.
Just remember that you’re not the only one in the relationship who has needs.
No one says you should have just one
Every mentor has blind spots of his own. Don’t expect to glean all the guidance you’re seeking from one person. At various stages of your career, you will need perspectives from a range of different people willing to act as your mentors. Even within a single company, it’s a good idea to cultivate more than one mentor. Hillary had it right: It takes a village….