“A mentor can be a critical factor to career success,” explains career coach Hallie Crawford, “because they can give you insider insight to an organization and your industry that will help you advance in your career. They help you set goals, improve your work performance, and their advice can help you avoid career mistakes and possible pitfalls. They can tell you the skills and experience you need to get promoted and advance your career path, too.”
But as important as a mentor might be, Crawford gets why you might not have one. “Some [people] think having a mentor is a sign of weakness or that they must do it on their own to be truly successful,” she says. “Most people, though, feel like trying to find a mentor is too difficult to do, takes too much time, or they don’t know who to ask or hose to go about it.”
That’s why we’re here! With these tips, you’ll be equipped with all the information you’ll need to identify, ask for, and begin a relationship with an invaluable-to-your career mentor.
What is a Mentor?
Mentorships help professionals learn about their fields and roles from senior practitioners. Mentors serve as advisors, helping mentees shape their ambitions and plans. Mentors are qualified to serve in this capacity because they have a general expertise relevant to the professional experience that they share with mentees. It isn’t necessary for mentors to work at the same company as those they mentor.
Sponsor versus Mentor?
Economist, founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation Sylvia Ann Hewlett explains: “Mentors can build your self-esteem and provide a sounding board – but they’re not your ticket to the top.”
Sponsors, on the other hand, can be that ticket. Sponsors take a direct role in the advancement of their protégés. Sponsors work at the same organizations as their protégés. They advocate for protégés, helping them earn raises and promotions and garner success in their shared environment. Sponsors put skin in game, using their connections to advance their protégés through their endorsement and guidance.
Having a sponsor, a career champion, is a game-changing asset that is especially important for minority and female professionals.
A sponsorship serves both parties, just as a mentorship does. But, while mentorships tend to be more ideological and educational, sponsorship involves concrete action on both sides.
Holly Brittingham, Senior Vice President of Global Talent and Organizational Development with Foote, Cone & Belding, FCB Global explains: “Sponsors actively seek out and facilitate career-expanding opportunities for their protégé, and, in turn, the protégé commits to stepping up and demonstrating value to the organization, even if this requires them to shift their way of thinking and their leadership behaviors, in order to be successful.”
Sponsorship, then, is a symbiosis rooted in action that furthers both sides’ aspirations. Brittingham notes: “Sponsors open doors and provide access, while protégés support and drive a sponsor’s vision.”
How to Identify a Mentor
Any ol’ mentor won’t do. “You want to find a mentor who shares a similar vision of success or someone who has been on a similar career path to yours,” says Crawford, by which she means that he or she “is either in a role you want to be in long-term or has some knowledge of the career path you want to pursue. Ideally, they would share some of your same career values or perspectives on their career.” The person you identify could be in your company, a university alumnus, a member of an industry association—or even outside your network.
Also, “some companies offer a mentor program, but it may not be advertised,” Crawford says. And if they don’t, they “may be open to developing one if you bring it up,” she says. So, check with coworkers or your HR department, and consider this idea a viable option, too.
How to Ask Someone to Be Your Mentor
Unfortunately, a great mentorship opportunity rarely just lands in your lap. More often than not, you need to proactively reach out in order to build the kind of professional relationship that can really benefit you. But you can’t just waltz up to someone and ask, “Do you want to be my mentor?” (Well, you could, but it probably wouldn’t be very effective.)
So how exactly do you tactfully ask someone to be your mentor?
1. Choose Wisely
“Don’t expect someone in a high-level leadership role, like the CEO of a large company, to immediately agree to be your mentor. While they may want to mentor you, they might not have the time to do so,” says Mary Grace Gardner, career strategist at The Young Professionista. “A helpful mentor to have is someone who is two or three levels above you, but doesn’t work directly with you. It’s more difficult for a mentor to give you neutral, constructive feedback if your work directly impacts them.”
Before clicking send on that email, think about what you need most right at this moment in your career.
“Start by asking yourself how having a mentor will benefit you in your current situation and what you will gain by beginning this type of relationship,” says Eden Waldon, Career Specialist at Ama La Vida. “Perhaps you are seeking a mentor who can support your career goals and offer sound career pathing advice. Or maybe you are looking for someone with subject matter expertise to help you navigate a particular problem. You may even have different mentors that provide you with support in professional, personal and spiritual capacities.”
2. Make Your Request
Once you’ve pinpointed the perfect mentor, it’s time to reach out to them. This doesn’t always have to be a formal request, though, especially if you don’t know the person well.
“I personally am not in favor of just saying ‘Will you be my mentor?’ right up front — it can be an overwhelming ask for a person who has a lot on their plate already,” says Santopietro-Panall. “I would recommend starting with something like ‘I really admire your work (or your career trajectory, or whatever it is that you admire) and was wondering if I could ask your advice on my own career?’ If the person says yes, then have that initial sit-down and chat with them.”
Then, if all goes well, you can introduce the possibility of setting up a recurring meeting.
“If you really like their advice and they seem invested in you, you might ask something like ‘I’d love to continue to learn from you, would you be willing to have coffee with me once a quarter/every few months and chat?’” Santopietro-Panall suggests.
3. Be Gracious
When your mentor responds to your request, make sure to be courteous — even if they say ‘no.’
“It would be only natural to feel angry or hurt if the person you would hope might mentor you says no. But, as you reflect on the situation, realize that your mentor may have things going on that you are unaware of,” says career coach, Angela Copeland. “They may be having a difficult time at work. Or, perhaps someone in their family is sick. In a work situation, people often don’t disclose every detail of their lives.”
Besides, Copeland adds, “This is a much better outcome than someone who commits time to you and then doesn’t follow through. Thank the person, and be very understanding and gracious. You never know — they may come back in the future and offer to mentor you.”
How to Convince Someone to Be Your Mentor
In many instances, highly-valued mentors are busy and you’ve got to sell them on becoming your mentor. “Be upfront about letting them know you would like to have a mentor-advisor relationship with them as opposed to just asking for tips from time to time,” advises Crawford. “Craft a plan beforehand that you can present to them—don't make them develop the plan.“ Your plan might include the number of meetings you’d like to have—on a monthly or quarterly basis—or a specific aspect of the industry or your job that you’d like to learn more about.
When you pitch your proposal, you may also want to ask your potential mentor for his or her preferred communication method. “Set the goals you would like to accomplish and try to see what they are receptive to,” advises millennial career expert Jill Jacinto. You might ask your mentor, for example, whether email works for quick questions and if he or she would be amenable to chats in person for more in-depth conversations, Jacinto suggests.
Lastly, “make sure to let them know you want to help them as well, with connections, to test out an idea on you, or anything else you can help them with,” says Crawford
First Mentor Meeting Plan
With a mentor in place, “don’t expect [him or her] to do all the legwork,” warns Jacinto.
Crawford says that many people choose to “make a formal agreement to help both parties take their new relationship seriously.” If you go this route, you can “take a look at your plan together and make adjustments as needed,” she says. “Then, commit to your schedule.”
But if your new mentor prefers to be a little less formal, “be flexible to bend to their desires as well,” she says. “Suggest you touch base with them once every other month, for example, to set up a time to talk. Bottom line, have some sort of agreement you create, together.”
When you meet (or speak) with your mentor, Jacinto recommends treating these meetings like any other you would at work. “Put together an agenda [and] include questions you’d like answered,” she says. You may even want to provide supporting documents or “set up a PowerPoint so they can easily identify the progress you are making, as well as see the time and effort you are putting into the mentor-mentee relationship,” Jacinto suggests.
In conversations with your mentor, “be prepared and ask for honest feedback,” Jacinto adds. “Part of having a mentor will help you course correct your workplace habits. This person is able to give unbiased feedback that will be constructive. I once worked with a client who did this and got really offended when a mentor told her that her personality when working on a team sounded abrasive and instead she should take a softer approach. [But] she inevitably took his advice and it changed her career for the better.”
How a Mentor Can Help You Get a Promotion
A mentor can help you snag the job you’ve only been dreaming about, according to Fredda Hurwitz, chief strategy and marketing officer at RedPeg Marketing and a member of the Marketing Academy’s scholarship mentor board, by giving you inside information, helping you hone your negotiation skills, introducing you to the right people, and so much more. Here, according to Hurwitz, are five ways they can help.
1. They can role play with you.
A mentor can play employer to the mentee’s employee, which can “help build up the mentee’s confidence in his or her ability to state their case and recognize their value” before heading into a negotiation for a promotion, says Hurwitz. “The value of a practice scenario shouldn’t be underestimated—it instantly creates a safe space to prepare for some off-the-cuff questions that could otherwise catch them off guard.” If you’d like to practice negotiating, ask your mentor to throw questions your way such as: how have you exceeded expectations with the company, and what are some wins you have had in the last six months? Hurwitz suggests.
2. You will learn from their past experience.
Your mentor has been there and done that—and his or her experience can help you learn information only someone on the inside would know. “The mentor should be able to draw on their own experience to provide hints and tips about how to approach this sensitive area,” Hurwitz says. “Have they stood up to a nightmare manager? Was their worth questioned in a negotiation setting? How did they stand up for themselves? Sharing these personal anecdotes—and furthermore, how they handled them—can help mentees to get a better sense of the types of scenarios they might encounter as well as different avenues through which to approach them.”
3. They can introduce you to the right people.
You’ve heard the saying that “it’s not what you know but who you know,” and when it’s time to snag a promotion, this can be especially true. “However, for those just getting their feet wet in an industry, a Rolodex of helpful contacts can take a while to build,” Hurwitz points out, and that’s where a mentor comes in. “A good mentor will open their network up to a mentee, allowing them to connect with other helpful individuals in the industry and ultimately build up their own little black book.”
4. They can help identify your strengths—and your weaknesses.
You’re ready for a promotion, but do you possess all the skills necessary to be successful in the new gig? A mentor can help you figure that out. “If there are skills that need to be developed in order for a candidate to become eligible for a raise, a mentor should be seen as a critical resource to point out these areas as well as offer tangible tips to help a mentee sharpen their skills,” says Hurwitz.
5. And they’ll keep it real with you.
One way to ensure you get a promotion is to make sure you’re actually ready for it. If you’re not, you could be setting yourself up for failure. “A mentor should even coach the mentee when not to seek a promotion—the mentor may realize that the mentee isn’t quite ready,” Hurwitz says. “An insightful and caring mentor should be able to take that step back and show the mentee what may still be required as a proof point before broaching the subject and having to deal with a very unpleasant response.”
Ready to find a mentor? If you're looking for an advocate because you're new to an industry or stepping into a bigger role, it may be time to invest in a mentor or a few mentors. Learn more about getting the professional insights you need: