Whether your an entrepreneur or an business leader, few things are more valuable than a great mentor. Perhaps you are stuck in a career rut and need some advice of how to rebuild momentum? Or maybe you are wondering if you should leave your corporate job to become an entrepreneur? Maybe your startup is performing well, but you're worried about the underlying health of your startup and if it is set up to succeed long term?
I know several mentors have been extremely helpful to me, especially in the first year of my think tank and advisory firm, EddieWouldGrow. So I am always eager to pay it forward to others.
So this is why early in January I went back to my alma mater, the University of Chicago, to participate on a panel of alumni in consulting to 1st and 2nd year undergraduates who are curious about the industry and eager to learn how they can prepare for it.
The panel was very enjoyable and I've had several students reach out for follow up. I had conversations with three different students that were a fascinating juxtaposition of the dos and don'ts of the very first meeting with a potential mentor. Specifically there are five tips to get and insure the first meeting with a potential mentor goes well enough to keep going.
Gumption: Have the guts to ask in the first place.
First, you have to ask. If you ask in a considerate manner, the worst that can happen is they say no or don't respond back. I had several students reach out to me afterwards in person or by email to make contact, but a number failed to make the explicit ask. I responded positively to those who did.
Kyle Okimoto was recently the Head of Marketing for E*TRADE and noted that he gets frequent emails from Northwestern Alumni. Each time he says he's willing to talk and to set it up with his assistant, but he observed only a quarter actually follow through.
Grease the skids: Take the time to set the right context.
If you're going to ask for someone's time and you don't know them, make sure that you are set up for a high quality call. Find a quiet room to make the call so there is no background noise. Have time before and after so that you are not rushed. One student set up a call right after a class was over and was clearly walking and talking at the same time, which made it very difficult to hear and was not a great first impression.
Groundwork: Do your homework ahead of time.
I was surprised at how much of a difference there was among the three who reached out. One student was so well prepared, he had not only read a number of my articles but had actually bought my book and read it before we talked. It certainly stood out in contrast to the other student who had done some cursory googling of me, but not enough to realize that my career is about growth strategy and that a technology oriented discussion wasn't the best fit for me.
This is not about ego, but it's about efficiency and honoring someone's valuable time. The more you know about your potential mentor, the less they have to introduce themselves and the more time they have to focus on your question. Plus in this day of LinkedIn, Twitter and online articles, not doing this is a clear sign of a lack of investment.
Great Questions: Invest in honing a few great questions.
Two of the students here really impressed me. One had a very specific career question, but took a step back and wanted to understand the theory of how consulting firms worked. It was so much more fun for me to talk about that than answer a specific question, that I would gladly meet with this person again.
Similarly, nothing can cut short a potential mentor relationship than a naive or ignorant question. One student asked me if it was smart to go directly to business school from undergraduate. That's a question that can be answered by a thirty second Google search. Don't waste someone's time with a bad question, but more importantly don't risk your reputation as well.
Generosity: Give more than you take in the interaction.
This is a nuanced point. You don't want to only take from the interaction, by pulling information but without offering something in return. Nor do you want to over do it, by doing anything crassly commercial. But you want to give some thought to what is motivating the potential mentor to help out and then figure out what it is that you can do to help. Often times, it's not that you actually give the right thing, but your thoughtfulness can come through very loudly.
Sometimes, even just asking what you can do to help out is all that you need. Or importantly, keeping the conversation on track to the amount you asked for, or even ending it earlier is a gift that can be appreciated. And of course, say thank you promptly!