Coming from the last few months where we spoke to amazing women leaders, one theme that is usually popular with leaders, is the need for a mentor, or on the other hand tips to navigate the request for mentorship. Most times it's an awkward ask, other times it is an evolving serendipitous relationship that just becomes.
I’ve been on both sides of the table - as a mentor to young amazing women, and men. I treat my direct reports as mentees and I am invested and involved in their personal and professional growth as a mentor typically would. Outside of my main professional life leading a tech startup, I also mentor several founders of businesses, in several countries.
On the flip side, I’m also a mentee. I have a few mentors or senior colleagues, a term I've come to like and her value in my life, and the experience has been amazing. I want to share my experiences from both perspectives, as interestingly, you can see common themes that are important across both relationships and this post is an attempt to explore that.
Here are a few tips I'll share after reflecting on my experience, after being on both sides, being a mentee and mentor.
Before The Outreach: As a potential mentee, before you compose that amazing email to that leader you so admire or walk up to them to share your elevator pitch. Let’s unpack a few things and try to answer a few questions on your “why”. During this stage, you want to critically think about where you are and (if) why you need a mentor. This then shapes the type of mentor you need. For this article, I’ll assume it's strictly professional. As an entrepreneur or an employee, it helps to articulate why you want this relationship.
A mentor is not a teacher, a mentor is a guide. A mentor will not chart your career for you, they are a sounding board. They are there to guide, provide accountability, you not actively coach you. This means, the bulk of the work still resides with you. They are also not your therapist. Remember, it is likely this relationship is unpaid. So, if you feel confused about your career and need someone to tell you what to do. You do not need a mentor. In that case, you need to take time, do some research, speak to a lot of people in that field with experience, and narrow your choices down and then you can reach out to your mentor for a specific ask.
Perhaps to seek their thoughts on that specific matter. A mentorship is not a singular act or a label. it is an eventuality, it is what happens when you have had several of these types of conversations, and your relationship has evolved to the point where that person becomes a go-to for those specific situations and they are now invested in your growth. When you both now know each other enough, and a relationship has been formed.
Earlier in my career, I was sure I needed a mentor. I desperately wanted it. It didn’t happen for a long time but during this period I learned that mentorship takes different forms, and the definition in our mind is a little too rigid. A mentor isn’t always this older, more experienced person who is like a professional older brother or sister there to protect and guide you. They are simply people with more experience who you can reach out to for insight and guidance. They can be friends, sometimes they are even younger. Start with the people around you. Your friends, colleagues, mutual contacts. For that specific dilemma, who can shed informed insight?
Oftentimes, there are more experienced people around you who you already are privileged to have built existing relationships with that you can leverage. Sometimes they are your friends and their value has been cloaked by your familiarity with them. Think about it, and find who they are in your circle. If you ask them, they will gladly offer invaluable insights that improve your overall decisions. It is admirable to want to reach out to that experienced, really popular person who would be a perfect mentor. It is likely a gazillion other people have reached out, and their bandwidth is already constrained. Look around you. Who are the low hanging fruits? Drop your ego, and ask them questions, get their opinions and learn. Start from where you are.
The first outreach:
If I had a thousand naira for each time I received an email or note from an eager, driven young woman (interestingly, few men) who potentially after much angst, decide to ask me for my hand in mentorship. (see what i did there?)I would be a millionaire. I have had to write responses politely declining, but offering an open line of communication, and it breaks my heart most of the time.
While the intent, reaching out to someone you admire from afar to be a mentor, is from a good place. In the real world, that relationship is a big ask, especially of a stranger. It is like asking a stranger to marry you, on a first date. No matter how charming they are, it is a big decision and takes a more natural approach for it to be effective. The likely answer will be a variation of “No’
Before your first outreach, you likely have found someone who is within reach, around you that you could easily engage. If it’s someone you already know that should be easier. Interestingly, the Golden rule in an outreach is really to avoid asking someone to be your mentor. It’s ironic but please do not use the words “Will you be my mentor?” I have made this mistake in the past but learnt (the hard way) that it is much better to ask for their time to talk through something specific. If they agree, that’s a good sign. If they say unfortunately they can’t, that’s also okay! If they do not respond, that's fine. In all cases, be polite, graceful, and keep the lines of communication open.
In the event, you can’t see anyone around you that fits and you have to reach out to someone farther removed, find a connector. Find a mutual contact they know and trust, that you also know and trust that can help put you on their radar with an intro. When you carry out that outreach, have a specific, well thought out ask. That shows you know what you want, did your homework, and how their specific experience fits. Make the work easier for them.
Building a relationship:
Not every outreach leads to a relationship and that is okay! It’s a lot of commitment. Of time, and mental bandwidth for both parties. There needs to be some chemistry or at least conviction and that isn’t always the case. After your first outreach, you’ll have a sense of if you want to speak to this person again, and this is on both ends. They also have a sense on if they want to speak with you again. If you feel the enthusiasm is mutual, then you can go ahead to ask for a second meeting at a future date. Likely building off, or giving feedback on the specific situation that was discussed in the first meeting. Something like a follow-up.
After a few meetings, you will know if it's reasonable to ask this person for a more constant thing. Tip: Make it very loose to start. Do not ask for weekly sync. Try quarterly. Just to give them an update on what you’re working on. The first meeting and situation are so important as an anchor, a thread you can continue to pull, and if they are open to a more frequent meeting, it is easier to then be more constant, say monthly, or bi-monthly.
For context, I started chatting with my mentor quarterly, and now we moved it to monthly, and sometimes we don’t even have to chat on schedule.
It's give and take:
The mentorship relationship is often misrepresented as a relationship where the mentor gives and gives without receiving anything from the mentee. But no relationship should be parasitic. As a mentee, you should actively find ways to add value to your mentor, and I know sometimes you might feel What could they possibly need that they don’t have? It’s not about the material things, but often it is about the gesture, the enthusiasm.
When they share their experiences, as you build your relationship. Find ways you can help, they often present themselves in ways you might not expect. Find out what is important to them, and where you have overlapping skill sets, are connected to someone who can help, offer your skills and resources to them without prompt. If you find an interesting article about something you discussed they were passionate about, send it to them! The enthusiasm is important because a mentor likely doesn’t want you to feel beholden to them, so if you show enthusiasm, they are less worried about them forcing work on you.
I also make it a note to always send a Christmas, birthday note and gift to my mentors wherever I can with a note. It’s not about the gift, but mostly the thought. When they give advice or their thoughts, really actively listen. I take notes during my chats with my mentor.
Final Thoughts: You might think you need a mentor, but sometimes it is not exactly how you might think. Keep your mind open, and press forward. A mentor isn't always one person. Find relationships around you that you can build, and leverage. That decisiveness is going to help you stand out if and when you do decide to enter a mentorship relationship. It is a relationship where you want to optimize for quality over quantity.
Mentorship is an amazing gift, and not everyone gets to have it. I hope this helps you think of mentorship differently, and help you build wholesome relationships in your professional and personal life. I hope they help you improve the quality of your decisions as you go through your leadership journey.
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