Everyone Says You Need A Mentor, So How Do You Actually Find One?
5 Steps to Curating One of the Most Important Relationships You’ll Ever Have
Recently I was asked why mentoring is such a huge passion of mine and where that began for me. I quickly chronicled my college years when I first learned what it looked like to have deep, transparent, vulnerable and meaningful relationships. I found that most significantly through my sorority, Alpha Omicron Pi (AOII). During those years I was making some of the most life-altering (and also stupid) decisions of my life.
At AOII, our Chapter Adviser Maeneen Klein was invested in us like we were her own daughters. She knew what was going on in our lives and cared deeply. She asked about our families, our classes, our boyfriends. She challenged our thinking, encouraged our leadership potential and served as a general guardrail to keep us on the right track. She knew when we were winning and when we’d taken a misstep, when girls were arguing within the chapter or when someone had broken our heart. Maeneen had this innate ability to know just the right day to show up at the house for lunch or dinner to engage in conversation and live life with us.
She saw something in me and believed in my leadership potential even before I knew what I had within me. Maeneen Klein was an ever-present voice of reason and showed me for the first time what it was really like to have a personal mentor. Because of her I chose to go back to AOII after graduation and offer to volunteer as an adviser to the chapter. This Fall I celebrated 20 years of advising AOII collegiate women. So any of them that are grateful for the way I’ve poured into them, can be grateful for the way Maeneen Klein poured into me and how she laid the foundation for my own AOII legacy. AOII gave me Maeneen Klein and that’s where my personal love for mentorship first developed.
I think we all, women in particular, hear that it’s critical to have a mentor, but most people don’t have the slightest clue as to how to find the right one. We’re not just searching for a warm body here. We’re really looking for someone who is invested in our long-term personal and professional development. After more than 20 years in my career, I have a few thoughts on seeking, selecting and sustaining a mentor partnership.
- Take inventory of your immediate circle and one to two degrees beyond it. Of course you can reach out to someone within your own organization, but perhaps your mother has a close friend who you’ve always admired for her professional savvy. Or maybe there’s a woman just a few years ahead of you at another company within your industry. Who are you connected to that could enhance your own development in some way? Think of people you admire for specific traits, characteristics or successes.
- Be specific with your request and manage expectations. Don’t just ask for coffee. Let me repeat that. Do NOT just ask if they would be willing to meet for coffee. What traditionally happens is that you make small talk and chit chat and nothing beneficial results. Mentors are busy, accomplished people. When you initiate communication, be detailed in your request. Tell them where you’re looking to improve, then ask for a clearly defined commitment: Would you be willing to meet with me one day for an hour every month for the next six months? They need to understand from the very beginning what it is they are signing up for if they agree.
- Clearly define your desired outcomes. Share what it is about them that you admire and are hoping to learn. For example, if they are a keen negotiator and you are entering a phase of applying, interviewing and transitioning to a new job, then spell that out to them. Explain that you know the value that their expertise and experience can bring you as you begin considering new jobs and you would love their recommendations on how to best advocate for yourself.
- Take initiative and prepare an agenda for each meeting. Do not expect your mentor to come to the meeting with an agenda. You are the one who has requested access to them. Determine each time what is is that you’d like to cover. Be mindful of the time constraints and allow time for lively conversation. Also send them the agenda ahead of time (at least one day prior) and share that this is what you’d like to discuss so that they can come thoroughly prepared.
- Don’t overlook the power of virtual mentors. I’ll use my own virtual mentor as an example here – Sara Blakely, the founder and CEO of Spanx. I have absolutely no relationship with Sara, but I admire her greatly. What she’s built at Spanx is not only providing great products to the world (and quite literally changing the fashion game for women), but also she’s leading a culture and a tone for her company that I respect. She’s transparent about what it’s like to manage and lead her empire, all while being an invested mom and wife. I relate. So, I read every single thing she writes that I can get my hands on. I listen, watch and read every interview she’s done. I follow her on social media. I read about her company regularly. I am learning how to be a better leader because of Sara and I have zero personal interaction with her. Find those virtual mentors for yourself.
Three qualities that make a great mentor:
- Someone who listens more than they advise
- Someone who is invested in long-term development and not just a short coffee meeting
- Someone who is nurturing and kind, but also firm
Three qualities that make a great mentee:
- Someone who has a great deal of initiative
- Someone who is open to critique and eager to learn instead of defensive
- Someone who is conscientious
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention personal mentors as well. Mentors amplify professional growth, but so often, we forget that we need mentors in our personal lives, too. Know a woman who’s been happily married for 50 years? Ask her if she’d be willing to share her knowledge that you can apply to your own relationship. Also, keep in mind that while we are drawn toward finding mentors in fields we’re passionate about––and that’s important––we should also seek out experts in areas where we know we’re weak. If you’re a strategic genius but horrible with numbers, seek out a successful financial mind to help yours.
There are a host of mentors in my life currently and through my career professionally that I owe so much gratitude. Pamela Clements, Carol Fitzgerald, Kelly Hughes, Sandy Schulz, Jolly Douglas, Michael Hyatt, Maeneen Klein – they’re all key figures in the woman that stands before you today. Who are those people going to be for you? It’s scary to ask someone to be your mentor, I understand. But, think of the woman 20+ years from now. How will she be different if you asked and that mentor agreed and changed your trajectory? Advocate for yourself. Advocate for her.