13 Tips on Finding a Mentor

How do people find mentors anyway? Is it as simple as just asking?

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Karen Burns
Perhaps as you were reading my post last week, you reached No. 4 on the list of 10 career resolutions for 2010, read “Find a mentor,” and thought, “Ha, easier said than done.”

How do people find mentors anyway? Is it as simple as just asking?

[See 9 insider secrets to getting hired.]

Well, pretty much. You choose someone you think would be a good mentor and then ask, "Would you consider a mentoring relationship with me?"

But wait! Before you do that, optimize your chances and check out these tips:

1. Be clear on why you want a mentor. Are you looking for someone to offer specific advice? Do you want a conduit to your industry’s movers and shakers? Or do you just need a sounding board?

2. Define your personality and communication style. What kind of mentor would best complement you? You may choose someone who’s your opposite (an extrovert to your introvert, for example), or someone in whom you see yourself (and vice versa).

[See 10 resolutions for your career 2010.]

3. When asking someone to be your mentor, explain why you’re asking and what you’d expect out of the relationship (see No. 1). Name your reasons for approaching this particular person. Don’t be afraid to be flattering (e.g. “I’m asking you because you are the most successful person I know”).

4. A mentor is a powerful role model. Look for someone who has the kind of life and work you’d like to have. Also, choose a mentor you truly respect. Don’t just go for the biggest name you can find.

5. Before asking someone to be your mentor, consider first simply asking for input on a single specific topic. How did that go? Was it good advice? Was it delivered in a way that made sense to you, and filled you with confidence and energy?

6. Look for ways you can reciprocate the help your mentor offers. At the very least, you can occasionally spring for lunch or, say, send a fruit basket. You don’t want to be all take-take-take.

7. Show gratitude. Never let your mentor feel taken for granted! Also, supply feedback. If your mentor suggested something that really worked out for you, report back. People love hearing about their part in a success story.

[See how to review the work you did last year.]

8. When looking for a mentor, think beyond former bosses and professors. Look to older family members or friends, neighbors, spiritual leaders, community leaders, the networks of your friends and colleagues, or officials of professional or trade associations you belong to. Avoid asking your direct supervisor at work. You want to be free to discuss workplace issues as well as your plans for future advancement.

9. Keep in mind that mentoring can take many forms. It can be a monthly lunch, a quarterly phone call, a weekly handball game, or merely a steady E-mail correspondence. Your mentor does not even have to live in your city or region.

10. Many mentors derive pleasure from “molding” someone in their own images—great for them and great for you if you want to be molded. But beware of mentors who are too bossy, controlling, or judgmental. This is your path, not theirs.

11. Don’t become too dependent on your mentor. The idea is that one day you will eventually be able to fly on your own. In fact, you may not take every bit of advice your mentor offers. Continue to think for yourself.

12. Guess what: You’re allowed to have more than one mentor. In fact, you can have a whole committee if you want, and call it your Board of Directors. Choose different mentors for different facets of your professional (and even personal) life.

13. Finally, if you ask someone to be your mentor and that person refuses, don’t be hurt or offended. This is not personal! Potential good mentors are very busy people. Thank him or her for the consideration, and ask for a referral.

If you study the trajectories of successful people, you’ll see that most of them had considerable help along the way. A mentor can be a boon to any career. So why deprive yourself? Go out and get a mentor of your own.

Karen Burns is the author of the illustrated career advice book The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use, recently released by Running Press. She blogs at www.karenburnsworkinggirl.com.