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The Wrong Question
What not to ask when seeking a mentor.
One of the most common queries I get during or after workshops is: “How can I find the best mentor?” And I think it’s the wrong question, for three important reasons.
First, taking a perfectionistic approach– starting our search with the goal of finding the best mentor, the ideal person to support us– almost guarantees that we’ll overlook a whole range of potential allies who could be helpful to us, and whom we, in turn, could help.
In fact, focusing our attention on finding Mr. or Ms. Right Mentor, as many experts urge us to do, can undermine our ability to build the support we need.
If we set our sights on that one perfect person whom we believe would be ideal, he or she may turn us down for reasons that have nothing to do with us. After all there are always more people seeking mentors than there are people available to mentor for the simple reason that there are fewer people in senior positions. So those who hold high positions are often overwhelmed by mentoring requests, even as they are immersed in demanding jobs.
Nothing feels worse than working up our nerve to pop the mentor question to someone we admire only to be told, “Sorry, I just can’t do it.” We’re left feeling unworthy, perhaps embarrassed, at a loss. And unsure of who might respond to our burning job or career questions.
Since we can’t control our ideal person’s availability or interest, it only makes sense to cultivate the widest possible circle of supporters. Doing so assures we’ll have plenty of choices when we find ourselves needing advice, introductions, or support.
The second reason “how can I find the best mentor?” is usually the wrong question is that it begs the issue, ideal for what? What kind of help are we seeking? Do we need a better way to let people know what we can do? Do we want to clarify the best path forward? Are we trying to connect with a more influential circle? Do we require a better read on our company’s political culture? Or are we looking for insights into what a cryptic boss expects from us?
These are all very different questions, so it’s doubtful one person could answer them all. Which is another reason that building a broad network is usually the best approach.
Rather than “who would be the best mentor?” a better question might be “who’s the most appropriate person to ask about this specific issue?” Who’s been through a similar experience? Who has the right mix of skills? And who might have the time to help us out? Because mentoring is most useful in specific situations that we find baffling, it makes sense to think in terms of who would be most likely to help us on which issue.
Finally, most fruitful mentoring relationships tend to evolve organically, as mentor and mentee get to know one another over time. And once we’ve gotten to know one another, it may not be essential to formalize the relationship by asking someone to become our mentor. For example, I’ve used what I call a stealth mentoring approach, which I wrote about last spring.
It worked like this: I’d developed an organic relationship with someone I very much admired. Knowing she was extraordinarily busy, I figured that if I asked her to be my mentor, she might turn me down. Instead, I mainly asked her advice when I needed it or when I thought she might be able to help. And sometimes, I simply asked myself what she would do in a similar situation.
Risk averse? Maybe. But highly effective. And that’s ultimately what a mentor does: help us to become more effective. It’s not a popularity contest. Nor is it a way to increase our prestige. It’s a relationship that supports our efforts to become our best selves.
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