Mentors, mentors, mentors. Everyone’s always talking about them but no one really seems to know how to get a good one.
Thanks to the internet we have more information than ever — but not any more wisdom.
Contacting mentors is one of the things I think you should do every week.
Whenever I say that, the response is the same: How?
Here’s what research and experts have to say about picking, contacting and maintaining a relationship with the right mentor, A-to-Z.
I’ve posted about what the most successful people in the world all have in common. One of those things is mentors.
For his book Creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed over 91 of the most creative people in the world (including 14 Nobel prize winners.)
What did they have in common? By the time they were college age, almost every one of those earthshakers had an important mentor:
In our study we found that a few individuals were taken in hand by competent adult practitioners very early in life, many were recognized during high school, and most of the remaining had an important mentor by the time they were of college age. Again, recognition by a mentor is not strictly necessary, but it must definitely contribute to the realization of creative potential.
10,000 hours of deliberate practice makes you an expert but what makes you dedicate 10,000 hours to something in the first place?
As Adam Grant of Wharton explains, the answer is great mentors.
Why would somebody invest deliberate practice in something? It turns out that actually most of these world-class performers had a first coach, or a first teacher, who made the activity fun.
Not worried about accepting a prize in Stockholm or being a chess grandmaster?
Okay, brass tacks here: Research shows mentors mean promotions and career satisfaction.
…past research has also found that people with mentors get more promotions and experience greater job and career satisfaction than those without mentors.
What Do Mentors Really Do?
Mentors generally offer three things.
1) They give career guidance.
First, they offer career guidance-for example, by making suggestions on assignments a protege might take, or suggestions on what career path might be most advantageous.
2) It’s not all about work. Mentors provide much needed emotional support when times get tough.
Second, mentors can provide emotional support around issues such as the inherent conflict between work and family, or can recommend methods for coping with a difficult boss or with work stress.
3) Mentors also often act like a role model, giving you something to emulate and aspire to.
Third, a mentor may provide support to proteges by serving as an effective role model who demonstrates appropriate behaviors for different situations.
Some people might say, “I don’t need to worry about all this. My company has a mentorship program.”
Yeah, too bad that program sucks.
Unfortunately, recent research has revealed that those in formal mentoring programs often fail to deliver on their rosy promises, and the participants may be left helpless and disillusioned. Possible reasons for this include a shoddy formal mentoring program structure, a matchmaking system that mimics blind dates from hell, or simply inadequate resources or rewards to support these programs.
And what about your greater career? If you’re a star do you think your company is going to tell you when it’s time to move on to greener pastures?
You need objectivity and you need someone who can give you advice that’s valuable over the long haul.
Mentors external to an organization provide a different perspective on the protege’s career and profession, as well as on the situations they witness in their organization. Being too entrenched in one organization can lead to less innovative decision making, possibly embracing only a particular style of management, and finally an inability to imagine a career outside of that organization.
So you need to get your own mentor. Here’s how.
How To Pick A Mentor
I’ve done an entire post on selecting the best mentor for you. You can read that here.
The quick and dirty version comes courtesy of Dan Coyle’s masterpiece The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:
- Avoid Someone Who Reminds You of a Courteous Waiter
- Seek Someone Who Scares You a Little
- Seek Someone Who Gives Short, Clear Directions
- Seek Someone Who Loves Teaching Fundamentals
- Other Things Being Equal, Pick the Older Person
The research also shows it’s good to look for someone who has a resume that shows grit.
And, believe it or not, happier mentors are better mentors.
Know yourself and what you need. If you don’t have these answers, a mentor can’t help you much.
Aspirational figures must “fit” with your career goals.
Role models who aren’t relevant or whose achievements are unattainable can make you 22% less satisfied with your career.
People who actively target someone to serve as a role model draw positive feelings from that person only if the role model’s achievements are both relevant and attainable. People who choose role models who do not fit that description wind up 22 percent less satisfied with their careers than people who do not have a role model at all. – Lockwood and Kunda 2000
Though I’m using mentor in the singular, I encourage you to be polygamous here — you need multiple mentors to cover the various areas of life.
More on how to select the perfect mentor here.
How To Contact A Potential Mentor
A referral from a mutual friend or contact is gold. But not everyone will be able to get that.
So what do you say in that first email?
You still want to leverage the power of some kind of similarity to build a connection.
What’s that mean? Ways you two are similar that aren’t obvious. And this has scientific underpinnings:
As the psychologist Robert Cialdini sums up the evidence from Influence, “Similarity literally draws people together.” In Give and Take, I elaborate on this principle to point out that similarities matter most when they’re rare. We bond when we share uncommon commonalities, which allow us to feel that we fit in and stand out at the same time.
So you establish some kind of common ground. The next thing to keep in mind is equally important:
Wasting a mentor’s (or potential mentor’s) time in any form is a mortal sin.
Not only is it annoying, it shows you lack basic skills. It screams to a mentor, “This person isn’t ready for your help.”
Writing a multi-page email to a very busy person doesn’t show you’re serious — it shows you’re insane.
So respect their time and start small. Asking good questions is a great way to build a relationship.
But the key word here is “good” questions.
NEVER ASK A MENTOR A QUESTION GOOGLE CAN EASILY ANSWER FOR YOU.
Carve this in stone. Scrawl it in blood above your desk. Get a tattoo.
It’s amazing how many would-be mentees or beneficiaries ask busier people for answers Google could provide in 20 seconds. That puts you on the banned list. Explicitly state what you’ve done to get answers or help yourself.
There is an old expression: “When the student is ready, the master appears.”
If you’re doing everything you can to advance your career, getting a mentor won’t be too hard. Why?
Because if you’re doing awesome work, people more successful than you will notice and want to help you.
If they don’t, you’re doing something wrong.
What, personally, makes me want to go the extra mile for someone?
When they demonstrate they have explored every conceivable avenue and they can go no further without me.
Seeing someone has done everything in their power shows they’re smart, they didn’t waste my time, and they’re resourceful.
Most mentors see themselves that way, so guess what? The two of you now have something very important in common.
Finally, don’t mention the M word — mentor. You wouldn’t ask for marriage on the first date, would you?
Don’t ask anyone to be your mentor, don’t talk about mentorships, just leave the word alone. No one goes out and straight up asks someone they’re attracted to be their boyfriend of girlfriend–that’s a label that’s eventually applied to something that develops over time. A mentorship is the same way, it’s a dance, not a contractual agreement… If you email a total stranger to ask them to commit to give you hours of their time over a period of years and demand that this gift is to be called a “mentorship,” you’re going to be disappointed.
What does an intro email look like?
Here’s a quick breakdown of some of my thoughts meshed with his insights.
- Subject line: I like to use the name of a mutual friend or contact that referred me. Otherwise, use something you share in common (alumni of the same school, etc.) or something attention getting.
- First thing: introduce yourself and clarify the connection you mentioned in your subject line.
- Politely flatter. It’s appropriate — if they weren’t awesome why would you want their help? It shows you took the time to learn about them. Highlight uncommon commonalities.
- Be clear, but polite, about what you want. Short but not blunt. Do not waste their time.
- Show you’ve done your homework. Can your questions be Googled? If so, to the ninth circle of Hell with you.
- The easier you make it for them to give a yes, the more likely you are to get a yes. You’ll schedule around them. You’ll drive to them. You’ll bring coffee.
- Proofread, edit, and make sure it’s brief. Take the time. A hastily sent grammatical abomination from your iPhone is a terrible idea. And if the length of your email elicits a gasp, a sigh or a comparison to the Game of Thrones books, you’re not done editing.
How To Handle The First Meeting
So they agreed to talk to you or meet with you. Great. I’m not going to tell you to be on time, be polite, and brush your teeth.
If you require that kind of advice you don’t need this article, you need preschool.
- Ask good questions. Good questions show you are smart and have done your homework, and make the mentor feel that they offer unique value.
- Other than asking good questions, shut up. Ryan says “The point of an accomplishment mentor is not for you to give them your opinion.”
- Don’t ask for a job. This makes people feel awkward and undoes all the good work you’ve done so far.
- Be likable. Here’s more on making people like you, using Dale Carnegie’s classic advice and making good conversation.
- Again, never waste their time. Keep it short, hit your marks, create an impression you can build on and make an exit.
Do those and you’ll be in good shape. Of course, right after this is where most people totally drop the ball.
How To Maintain A Mentor Relationship
Many people send a great email, have a great meeting… and then they vanish off the face of the Earth and let the connection go cold.
Stay in the picture. You are easily forgotten by busy people, remember that. The key then is to find ways to stay relevant and fresh. Drop emails and questions at an interval that straddles the fine line between bothersome and buzzworthy. It’s easier to keep something alive than it is to revive the deceased…but it’s on you to keep the blood flowing, not the mentor.
And the inevitable question people ask me: What do I say when I touch base with them?
After that first meeting, did you actually take any of their advice? (If not, stop reading now and just go watch cartoons, okay?)
The best answer, in my opinion, is simple:
I used your advice by doing _____. Here’s how wonderfully it turned out _____. Thank you so much!
Do what they said, get results, and let them know they made a difference. This is what mentors want.
If they engage you can follow up with:
I (did my homework) and figured (really impressive next steps) would be _____ but I’d love your insight. Do you think (well-thought-out-strategy #1) or (well-thought-out-strategy #2) is better?
You want these interactions to be conversational back and forths, not one-offs you need to regularly hit with a conversation defibrillator to keep the relationship alive.
And try to reconnect with them in person or on the phone at least annually.
Now Do It
I don’t know where I’d be without the mentors who helped shape me.
So no more “I don’t know how to do that” excuses. You have the pieces to the puzzle now.
You cannot — and should not — go it alone. You have much to learn from those who came before you.