How to Find a Mentor

Smart advice for finding someone to learn from and who is willing to help.

By Sarah J. Robbins
Alexandra Wilkis Wilson and Kellee Khalil: mentor and protégéeRobert Maxwell

Alexandra Wilkis Wilson and Kellee Khalil: mentor and protégée

Finding the One

Certainly not every woman needs a mentor. But if you want such a relationship, here’s how to get started.

Define your objective. Be clear about what you’re after. Are you looking for a supportive, weekly mentoring session with someone who will guide your career long-term? Specific advice for a project that you’re grappling with right now? Or do you simply want what Strojny calls a “coffee mentor,” someone whose brain you can pick when the spirit moves you?

Look around. Women tend to focus their mentor searches at their workplaces as opposed to within their wider networks, says Williams: “But you don’t even need to choose someone in your own industry.” When Williams was in her 20s and working in event marketing, one of her most powerful mentors was her next-door neighbor, a venture capitalist. “Someone in virtually any walk of life could have a significant career experience that mirrors yours or relates to the career that you want to have,” says Beninger. That could even be someone younger than you. For example, one of Strojny’s protégées is 82.

Ask for what you want. “People aren’t mind readers,” says Beninger. “You have to be able to formulate what you want your career arc to look like, and you have to ask for opportunities that will get you there.” Then start a conversation with a possible mentor by offering something that you can do to be useful. “Say, ‘I heard you’re going to this conference. Can I come along? Can I take photos for you or live-tweet the event?’ ” says Sklar. “Figure out what to ask that will both deepen the relationship and provide you with chances to shine.” Be specific, and make yourself—and your accomplishments—known.

Bring goals to your first meeting. Don’t kick off your mentorship with a meandering chat over lattes. Instead, experts suggest that you show up with an agenda. “Use the time for something impactful,” says Ghosn. Targeted questions, she says, are a sign that you respect that person’s expertise and value her time: “Instead of asking something vague like ‘Hey, what advice do you have to share?’ say, ‘So I researched your background and would love to understand how you transitioned from Job X to Job Y.’ ”

Be realistic about your expectations. “Many people that I mentor default to ‘Nancy must know best,’ ” says Strojny. “Our job as mentors is to expand your scope and to get you to think about how to frame your experience. We’re not here to make your decisions for you.” Also, don’t assume that your mentor is always available. Be respectful about requesting her time, whether that’s in person or by e-mail or phone. Ghosn advises that you establish ground rules early on: Find out if she wants to check in via e-mail weekly, monthly, or quarterly.

Finally, pay it forward. Once you’ve benefited from having a mentor, consider becoming one. According to a 2012 Catalyst report, both male and female leaders who helped foster others’ careers saw a stunning average of $25,075 in compensation growth for themselves between the years 2008 and 2010. Why? “Developing the careers of others increases your visibility and shows your boss that you’re not just out for your own advancement,” says Beninger. “It’s the right thing to do for someone else, and it pays dividends for you, too.”

 

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