There’s no doubt that a great mentor can be invaluable to your career — after all, mentors are able to provide you with insightful feedback, introduce you to important connections and maybe even help you find your dream job.
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? We reached out to five career experts to find out — this was their advice. Plus, check out our guide on mentorship with everything you need to know!
1. Identify the Right Mentor
Before you ask someone to be your mentor, you should make sure that they're the right person.
“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.”
To hone in on who you should choose, 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.”
It’s also important to make sure your potential mentor has a communication style that works for you.
“You have to know what you want from that person in order to identify the right mentor. Do you want a sounding board or a tough-love honesty? Do you want advice on the direction of your career overall or a particular aspect? You may also want to ask someone who knows you both (if possible) if they think you might be a match,” says Jill Santopietro-Panall, HR consultant and owner of 21Oak HR Consulting, LLC.
So where exactly can you find people like this?
“Ask your Human Resources department. There may already be an existing system in place for identifying and assigning mentors. If so, find [out] how to be considered and other criteria for eligibility,” Cohen says. “If a program does not exist, the human resources person may still be an important advocate in thinking through and arranging an introduction.”
However, “if your company is small or you feel awkward asking for an internal mentor, join an industry-specific association," Cohen suggests. "It is a great way to meet more senior people in the industry and to develop informal mentoring relationships.”
But no matter who you choose, “make sure you identify with this individual’s career path, goals and especially values,” Waldon shares.
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.
However, if you do want to make a more official request — perhaps you know your potential mentor well, and want to formalize your mentor/mentee relationship — you definitely can. Just make sure to be clear about what exactly it is that you’re asking of them.
“One of the number one complaints mentors have is that they don't know what their mentee is looking for in the relationship. When you ask someone to be your mentor, be clear with them about your expectations. Are you asking for thirty minutes once per quarter, or are you asking for an hour once a month? Do you want to meet over the phone or over lunch? Making your wishes known on the front end will help you and your mentor,” says career coach Angela Copeland.
It’s also a good idea to give a high-level description of what your conversations will likely involve.
“The term ‘mentor’ can mean different things to different people. For example, are you going to come to this person with work problems? Are you going to run any career changes by them? Are you going to ask their advice — and take it — on training or other avenues to your goal?” Santopietro-Panall asks. “So, when asking someone to be your mentor, I think you want to let them know what that means to you and what you want from them. You might say something like ‘I admire your work and I'd love to have you as my mentor. In my mind, that would mean meeting with you once a quarter to review some of the work choices I've made in tough situations and see if you would advise me to do things differently.’”
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,” Copeland says. “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.”
Of course, you should also make sure to express your gratitude if someone does agree to serve as your mentor.
“If someone says yes to you, I would thank them warmly and probably send them a handwritten thank-you note — and then schedule your first meeting promptly, so you get the momentum going,” Santopietro-Panall says. “I would not make any over-the-top displays, such as sending elaborate gifts or doing a big social media blast about it — don't make people second-guess their choice to mentor you. Be professional and be excited, but still be chill about it.”
Finally, give yourself a pat on the back! Mentors can be immensely helpful, and seeking one out is an important step toward reaching your career goals.
“The support provided by a mentor can be invaluable, whether that is advising you on your career goals, connecting you with other professionals in your field [or] being a supportive sounding board,” Waldon says. “This type of connection is an investment.”