By ProFellow Founder Dr. Vicki Johnson
I advise many people as a mentor, both casually and in a formal capacity through my course. I’ve discovered that there are many misperceptions about what mentorship is and what it should be. For example, sometimes I’ll get a brief and unexpected email from a complete stranger with the question: Will you be my mentor? (I’m then scratching my head how to respond….). I’ve also seen professionals, after progressing in their careers and achieving incredible recommendation letters from bosses and professors, state “I just don’t have a mentor!” I thought now might be a good time to slay some of the myths about what mentorship is and provide some advice on how to get a great mentor.
First of all, there’s a good chance you already have a great mentor within your sphere. A mentor can be someone that you work with, a professor, a family member, or even a peer who has already achieved what you’re seeking to achieve. Mentors don’t have to be your boss, a university advisor, a paid coach, or the CEO of your company (and often, the best mentor for you will NOT be in these types of roles).
But before I explain how to find a mentor, let me give you an overview of what makes a great mentor.
What makes a great mentor?
#1 They provide positive support
A good mentor will be someone who will answer your questions thoughtfully and will not discourage you from pursuing big goals. I believe strongly that mentors should serve to tell you how to get from where you are now to where you want to be, and set their personal opinions about your possibility of success aside. That way, you can be armed with the information on your next steps and make the personal decision about whether the goal is worth the effort (never leave that decision to somebody else!). You want to get advice from someone who will root for your success, no matter how challenging the goal and obstacles ahead. This is because most of us already have plenty of fears and insecurities that can hold us back from achieving our potential. Your mentor should be someone that will help you break through those fears and achieve greater self-confidence.
#2 They understand your challenges
You want a mentor who has achieved success with a similar lived experience as you or who has helped others achieve success with a similar experience. They understand where you are coming from and what you are up against. For example, if you are someone who has experienced racial, gender or age discrimination, are a low-income or first-generation college student, or are an immigrant or international student, you will experience career challenges that some people might not understand, and likewise, the advice they give may not suit your situation. On the other hand, make sure that a mentor who faced similar challenges won’t dissuade you from the journey because of their own difficult experiences. Advice that is intended to protect you might hold you back from achieving success. You’ll want to find someone who understands the challenges and can give you useful and positive guideposts for navigating them.
#3 They are available
A lot of people who could be great mentors are not currently available to you because they are too busy. This is not a knock against them – it’s simply a reality that many successful people at the height of their careers are managing an overwhelming amount of professional and personal commitments. You’ll want to find a mentor who is at a place in their career where they have the free time and willingness to spend an undistracted hour with you discussing your questions. Be respectful of people’s availability at the point you need their guidance. Some years their priorities will be small children, big career moves, and large projects, but at other times they may be more than happy to engage with you at length about your burning questions and challenges (and perhaps will have some learned advice on how to manage that overwhelming number of commitments!). That said, if you want advice from someone you know well, like your boss or a family member, don’t assume because they are busy that they won’t make time for you. Just ask! They may not have time to meet with a near-stranger for a coffee chat, but they may be more than happy to clear their calendar to meet with you because they are personally invested in your success.
Now that you know what to look for in a mentor, here are some key pointers to approaching people to request their mentorship.
How can you ask someone to be a mentor?
#1 Don’t make it formal
There’s no need for any formality around the role of a mentor. Unlike dating, where it might be important for the two parties involved to define their relationship and put a public label on it, there’s no need to make a formal request to ask someone to be your mentor. In fact, that type of request will work against you, because it will be laden with assumptions about your expectations of the person. Mentorship is simply helpful conversations with people who have achieved the goals you are striving for. Unless you are hiring a paid coach, all you need to ask of a potential mentor is a casual meeting to discuss your career, graduate school, or project questions. That’s it! You might meet with a mentor once, or you might meet with them several times over the course of months or even years. There does not need to be a formal name, agreement or structure for this relationship (but you should recognize this relationship as mentorship if you are already doing this with a colleague, professor, family member or friend!).
#2 Drive the relationship
Don’t expect mentors to come to you with offers of opportunities to provide you guidance and answer your questions. Although mentors receive great satisfaction in helping the next generation succeed and thrive, their guidance is a gift to you! It’s important you are respectful of their schedule and priorities and ask for meetings at their convenience. Of course, let them know what is at stake if you need guidance on an issue that is urgent or sensitive. One day, you will be in their shoes and you’ll understand why it’s important for the mentee to be the one who drives a relationship and comes prepared to meetings with specific questions.
#3 Temper your expectations
A mentor who discusses the questions you have about your career, graduate school, and even personal challenges may give you great advice, but always take personal opinions with a grain of salt. Even a successful person who has the same lived experiences as you may give you advice that goes against what you believe or that doesn’t fit your situation. Often, it’s best to get more than one opinion on the subject rather than to expect one person to have all of the answers, which brings me to the last rule.
#4 Find more than one mentor
For all the reasons I stated above, it’s good to have conversations with a wide variety of people to understand different opinions and perspectives on how to advance in your career and achieve your goals. Everyone has a different lived experience and many people’s experiences were driven by personal factors that are not the same as yours. For example, based on my own experience, I usually tell people not to plan out their career too far, because in the journey of pursuing new opportunities, other new opportunities are going to arise that you didn’t expect that might shift your focus. However, another experienced mentor might say planning is exactly what you need to do to achieve your goals! As with any advice, don’t ask mentors just what you should do, but also ask how and why. This will help you to make informed decisions that aren’t influenced by just one opinion or perspective.
Final Note on Mentorship
After reading this article, perhaps you’ve come to the conclusion: I do have mentors! You likely already do – they are the people you have been seeking advice from all along. Now, I hope you know how to find more mentors like these.
What’s most important is that you continue to work hard, show up with a positive attitude, and cultivate your professional network. Networking doesn’t mean approaching strangers at conferences for small talk. Networking means that you build meaningful relationships at work and school through conversations and collaboration. Be sure to take advantage of “Office Hours” with your professor, volunteer for projects at work, go to events in your community, and offer support to others when they need it from you. All mentees are mentors-in-training!
Dr. Vicki Johnson is Founder and CEO of ProFellow, the world’s leading online resource for professional and academic fellowships. She is a four-time fellow, top Ph.D. scholar, Fulbright recipient and an award-winning social entrepreneur. She is the Creator and Director of Fully Funded, her signature online course and mentorship program for graduate school applicants seeking to find and win full funding.
© Victoria Johnson / ProFellow, LLC 2021, all rights reserved