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Need a Mentor?
Make it easy for them to say yes
“I need to find a mentor.” I hear this all the time. And yes, we all can benefit from having a well-placed mentor to provide advice, connections, and support.
Yet mentors are notoriously difficult to find. There’s a huge mismatch between the number of people seeking mentors and those who can fill the traditional role. The primary reason is that there are far fewer people at senior levels, which is where those searching for mentors usually look.
So it's no surprise that senior people often report being inundated with requests. “If I mentored everyone who asked,” one high-profile woman in banking told me, “I’d have to quit my job.” To address the mismatch, many organizations have set up mentoring circles as part of their employee networks, or asked HR to assign mentors to people who request them. While these approaches can be effective, they often overlook the importance of personal chemistry in mentoring relationships.
I suggest two strategies for those seeking mentors, or whose present mentoring relationship feels a bit stiff.
The first requires being highly intentional about what you expect from the relationship. This makes sense since the question, “Will you be my mentor?” is pretty generic, and not especially clear. The prospective mentor is often left to wonder what exactly might be involved, and may decline for fear it would prove too heavy a load.
In addition, engaging an all-purpose mentor doesn’t actually make a lot of sense, because different people are likely be helpful in different ways. Are you looking for someone to introduce you to people or groups who could be strategically useful? Do you need advice on how to assess or improve certain skills? Are you hoping for guidance on how to move forward from a job in which you feel stuck? Do you need tips for improving your relationship with your boss?
In my experience, the more specific you are in making your request, the more likely a potential mentor will decide, “Sure, I can do that.” Or point you in the direction of someone who can.
This tactic is also useful because it sends a subtle signal that you aren’t looking for someone to solve your life. While this possibility may never have crossed your mind, potential mentors frequently worry that saying yes to someone they don’t know very well could result in escalating expectations. Limiting the scope of your request while being clear about what you are seeking is a proactive way to put these concerns to rest, and can be especially effective if you articulate the time frame in which you anticipate needing support.
Finally, giving your mentor a chance to get to know you increases the chance that your relationship will blossom organically over time, becoming richer as you grow comfortable with one another. This, in combination with clear limits and expectations, is especially useful in a hybrid or virtual workplace, where we lack opportunities to develop trusting relationships with potential mentors.
The second strategy involves redefining the who of mentorship.
Traditionally, a mentor is someone at a higher level who can help smooth your career path, usually in an organization of which you are both a part. But the thinning out of mid-level people puts increasing pressure on senior people, which makes finding a good fit even harder.
Yet there are plenty of people at your own level who can help you in a range of ways: introductions, finding direction, understanding the terrain, identifying the skills needed to move forward. Again, the more specifically you think this through, the more likely you are to accurately assess who among your colleagues could be helpful.
Colleague mentoring also naturally builds reciprocal relationships, because even as we benefit from a peer’s support, so can our peer benefit from ours– if not right now, then over time. This is one reason that colleague mentors tend to be particularly invested: they recognize that we can be a resource for them as well. By rising laterally, we rise together.
So there’s no need to feel discouraged if you’re having trouble finding a mentor, or if you’ve popped the “will you be?” question a few times and been turned down. In all likelihood, it’s not personal, it’s a result of the structural incongruity noted above, as well as the difficulty of getting to know a wide range of people in the post-pandemic workplace. But by adjusting your expectations and keeping your requests specific, while also broadening your search to include colleagues, you can dramatically increase the chances of finding the support you need.
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