8 Misconceptions that Sabotage Your Search for a Professional Mentor
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” — Isaac Newton
We often think of successful people as solitary figures. It’s almost somewhat glamorous to think of a lonely innovator, a self-made man.
However, that’s often not the case. If you look more closely, you will see how rare it is for someone to succeed without a helping hand. Ray Charles mentored Quincy Jones. Christian Dior mentored Yves Saint Laurent. Bill Gates mentored Mark Zuckerburg.
Still, the process of finding a mentor can be mysterious. How does one find this mythical creature? How do you approach one? Teachers don’t give lectures on the appropriate method for asking someone to be your mentor. In the absence of information, misconceptions tend to form.
So, in the interest of demystifying the process and jump-starting your career, here are 8 misconceptions that will sabotage your search for a professional mentor:
1. You should look to your boss or supervisor for mentorship.
Your boss is a great resource for boosting your productivity and learning new skills at work. However, he or she does not always make the best mentor.
It’s important to remember that mentoring is not the same as coaching. Your manager could be a phenomenal coach who will go out of his/her way to help you meet the expectations of your job, but, at the end of the day, your manager is responsible for meeting the goals of your company. That is their number one priority.
The role of mentor, on the other hand, is more all-encompassing. A good mentor can prepare you for success, not only in your current job, but also in your overall career path.
While some companies have wonderfully effective formalized mentoring processes, seeking an additional mentor outside of the workplace can give you a different perspective.
2. Your mentor needs to come from within your industry.
A good mentor can come from unexpected places. He or she does not even have to work in your particular field.
If you are an economics major in college, for example, don’t overlook the potential impact that a professor from, say, the English Department or the Business Department can have on your professional development.
Let’s say that your goal is to become a better communicator. An English professor could be the best person to help you express yourself more effectively. If you struggle with taking charge in team projects, the Business Department is full of people trained to be successful leaders.
When you’re looking for a mentor, don’t overlook the successful people from disciplines other than your own. Someone’s skills, experience, and connections are more important than their line of work.
3. Aim high. You should look for mentors who are leaders in their field.
While many people look to the top of the industry for their mentor, you’d have better luck with aiming your sights a bit lower. Sure, it would be great to learn from the Richard Bransons and Elon Musks of the world, but business leaders are busy people. The competition for their time and attention is stiff. Also, there is a huge difference in experience and skillset between a lower level employee and a CEO. The employee just hasn’t progressed far enough yet to make the best use of the CEO’s advice (not to mention their valuable time and personal investment).
Someone who is closer to your level has a better idea of what your needs are at this particular stage in your development and will be more likely to respond to your request. Look for people who hold positions slightly higher than your current level. For example, if you are currently a supervisor or manager in your company, the next step up would often be a directorial position. Search for those people who were in your shoes not too long ago.
4. You shouldn’t try to find a mentor. Someone will reach out to you if they see your potential.
If you’re waiting for a mentor to recognize your innate talents and take you under their wing, you’ll probably spend a long time staying still.
You need to take active steps to make connections with the people you admire. Keep your eyes open for potential opportunities. If you’re a student, talk to your professors after class. If you are an entrepreneur, reach out to small business owners in your area for advice. Someone in your existing professional network may also be able to introduce you to potential mentors.
As you can tell, this is not a passive process. A mentor can open the door to new possibilities in your career, but you have to be the one to knock.
5. A mentor has to be someone in your professional network.
If you want to make a connection with someone you don’t know, it’s possible (although may be a bit trickier).
With the rise of social media, you can search for and chat with successful people from outside of your professional network.
To find these potential mentors, search for content that speaks to your professional goals, and start to keep a list of the content creators you admire. See if their general philosophy lines up with your own, and, if so, jot down some questions you’d like to ask them based on what you’ve read.
If they have a Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn (anything!) send an informal comment their way. Ask a question about something they’ve posted or relate it to an experience of your own. You’re much more likely to get a thoughtful response if you’ve shown that you’ve invested time and effort into understanding what they’ve written. Also, you don’t want to ask a question that has been answered to death already.
After you’ve communicated with them a little over social media, the next step would be to reach out to them more formally. Some people have an email address on their personal website; others prefer you Tweet at them. This preference should be pretty clear from how they interact on their various platforms.
Sometimes you’ll get a helpful, thoughtful response. Sometimes you’ll get a canned message with vague platitudes. Either way, thank them for their time, but if you do get a more detailed response, take that as a signal that they may be open to continuing to discuss and help you on your journey.
6. A mentorship is a formal process with a set schedule and timeline.
A mentorship can be anything you want it to be. Simply sitting down for coffee every month can be just as valuable as setting a recurring weekly meeting in the office.
In fact, I suggest starting with a more causal meeting. Reaching out to someone with the request for mentorship is asking for someone to take on a great deal of responsibility. An invitation for coffee (your treat), on the other hand, is a much easier commitment. This “foot in the door” technique will give you a chance to form a more personal connection and prove to him/her that you are worth the time and effort of mentoring.
Most mentoring relationships will evolve organically from here, and you’re free to set the structure in the way that best fits you and your mentor. Keep in mind, though, a mentorship is not the same as a college course or an internship. There is no set end date or required outcomes. There’s no guarantee that in 6 months, you’ll suddenly have all the knowledge you need to catapult your career. The onus is on you to take full advantage of the connection you’ve formed.
7. The focus of a mentoring relationship is on the mentee.
When reaching out to or meeting with a mentor, your goal should be to learn from their experiences. There will be time to talk a little about yourself and get their advice, but show that you are interested in them before diving into your life story.
Research your potential mentor. You’ll want to come prepared to each meeting with one to two topics you’d like to cover and some questions to prompt the discussion. Ask them to give you examples from their own life, or ask them to elaborate on something they’ve written. A good rule of thumb is that your mentor should do roughly 80% of the talking.
8. If someone refuses to be your mentor, it means that they do not see potential in you.
Unfortunately, the people who are most successful are also those with the most on their plate. Don’t take it personally if someone shows a lack of interest in being your mentor. It’s likely that they lack the time to invest the level of effort that they would want to bring to a mentoring relationship.
Even if you’re feeling rejected, it’s important to thank them for any time or help that they’ve invested in you so far. Although you may have struck out, you’ve still made a valuable connection. And who knows? They may be able to point you towards someone better suited to be your mentor.
Don’t let this process intimidate you. In the worst case scenario, you’ve gotten a chance to talk with someone you admire. In the best case scenario, you’ve formed a powerful connection that can help launch the next stage of your career.
Just remember, when you’re sitting at the top, that there was once someone who helped you. So, when you rise, make sure to pull others up with you.