"Find a mentor" leads any checklist for career success. But if you don't know how to treat the relationship, you can easily turn a potential mentor into a de facto career coach you don't pay (and instead just annoy).
My mentors have taken me far already in my career -- and I've never asked anyone for their time. Here are a few simple tricks I've learned to find mentors without ever uttering the words "pick your brain" or embarrassing myself by offering coffee as compensation.
Find the right person.
Like most of my peers, I followed a lot of bloggers when I started writing. Many had useful tips to share about the craft or business of writing, and a few had careers I could learn from.
One writer, Alexis Grant, had a career I loved, a mix of traditional journalism and online media experience that was unusual in the space at the time. The clincher? She was just a few years ahead of me in that career path, so I could actually see myself in her shoes one day -- not so easy when you try to emulate the best-known players in your field as an amateur.
Learn from a distance.
I gobbled up every career and writing tip Grant shared. And I watched what she was doing that she wasn't writing about: What kind of work did she take on? How did she promote herself? Who was she connected to?
It wasn't as obsessive as it sounds. (Probably a little, though.)
I didn't follow her path exactly. That wouldn't have done me any good. Instead, from what she did, I learned how my career could possibly look. Especially when you're not following a well-beaten career path, that's invaluable.
Lead with your value.
When you're ready to connect, don't simply by ask for someone's time. Figure out what you can offer to earn it.
When Grant was editing a new site, I pitched stories. When I ran an interview series on my blog, I invited her. When she launched a new site, The Write Life, I contributed posts. When her budding content management firm needed freelancers, I was available.
"When I see someone with potential," Grant told me when I asked for her perspective on our mentoring history, "I get personal satisfaction by watching or helping them succeed -- which serves as an incentive for me to send more opportunities their way."
I offered my value in exchange for the effort she'd spend telling me about her work or editing my stories, so I could connect -- and, therefore, learn -- directly without wasting her time.
Know their value, and don't miss out.
I never thought of Grant explicitly as a mentor, because I'd never sought one. I just admired her work and enjoyed working with her, so I paid attention and learned without blatantly asking her to teach me anything or open any doors for me.
When she joined The Penny Hoarder in 2015, as always, I jumped at the open writer positions. I landed a job and moved from Wisconsin to St. Petersburg, Florida, to join the company as hire No. 10.
I'd never been to Florida or worked in an office, and I was only vaguely aware of The Penny Hoarder -- but I knew Grant surrounded herself with smart people and took on exciting challenges, and I wanted to be part of it.
Three and a half years later, the company has grown to more than 100 people and landed three times on the Inc. 5000 -- and I've grown from a staff writer to an editor managing five people.
Learn to love saying 'yes.'
I've admired and learned from many people in my career besides Grant (I told you: not that obsessive). She's just had the greatest impact thus far and has represented the myriad types of mentors I might have sought in my career if I'd paid attention to those checklists.
For finding all my best learning opportunities, my best tool has simply been a willingness to say "yes."
As I've shown my value, Grant has invited me to work on projects well outside my comfort zone: social media, design, video, staff training, developing editorial processes, launching a daily newsletter, speaking at a conference and even reorganizing the company's Slack channels.
"The real test is whether someone maximizes those opportunities," Grant said. "If they do, it motivates me to help them even more. If they don't follow through, I wouldn't put my energy into them the next time."
Every opportunity is intimidating, but I never say no. Each one comes with a chance to learn from her and other innovative leaders -- and I've never had to offer to buy anyone a cup of coffee.