For the past couple of years, I have lectured at the Wall School of Business at Coastal Carolina University. Part of my responsibility is to meet with students, provide career advice, and help them build their professional network.
The university was nice enough to provide me a nice office on campus, one with a window, which after working in a closet-sized room as an entrepreneur for a decade was more of a luxury than I can explain. Because of this office -- and the window -- I spend most of my week on campus.
I also employ an open-door policy, as I have done since my first managerial job over two decades ago. I encourage students to stop by and talk anytime, and I even provide them with a live link to my calendar so they can make an appointment at their convenience.
The interesting thing is that since joining the university, rarely do I get drop-in visits from students. I have always wondered why, given I constantly remind them that I am available to help. Then I heard a story at NPR that many college students were scared -- actually terrified in some cases -- to visit professors outside of class.
Dumbfounded by this story, I consulted with a group of students with whom I work closely in a consulting practicum I founded and direct on campus. While most students said they weren't necessarily "scared" to come visit me, they did have a number of other excuses for not doing so, such as feeling like I was too busy or that they were bothering me.
Although disappointed, I thought back to when I was a young professional, and while I was full of ambition, I was also full of myself, convinced I could find the solution to any issue on my own. And, as a son of Baby Boomers, I was encouraged from a young age to just go figure things out.
Attitudes are wildly different today, and I would argue that this change is good for everyone. We are much more open to seeking help and collaborating. So the question then is, why don't more people ask for help?
If the report from NPR is any indication, it really does come down to a fear of asking. So, here is how you can start building the support network that will help you get you to your goals.
Maybe in generations past, there was a stigma around talking about your problems and seeking help. In reality, professionals around the world ask for help all the time. Often, it comes in the form of retaining other professionals for specific services. The only difference with mentors is you might feel strange not paying them for just talking to you, even though the good ones will.
Regardless, there is no shame in asking for advice or assistance, or as the case may be, for support and guidance. This is especially true after a Mind Share Partners, SAP, and Qualtrics study showed that more and more young professional struggle with mental wellness, an issue we should all pay closer attention to, especially when it comes to the affects on our communities.
Take the First Step
The most difficult part about asking for help is taking the first step. Most professionals -- at least the ones I know -- would love nothing more than to give back to the community that supported them by offering their guidance and assistance. Most of these professionals, however, do not actively seek mentees, so you need to take the initiative.
Asking can be as easy as offering to take someone for a cup of coffee or having a 10 minutes conversation to "pick their brain." If you start the conversation, more than likely you will find a willing recipient on the other end of the requests -- and perhaps even a long term relationship that helps you throughout your career.
With all of this said, I will add the caveat that if you do find mentors willing to help, do not take advantage of them. Use them only when you need them, do not monopolize their time, and pay close attention to obvious signs that you are becoming more than they can handle.
A very important question to ask from the start is availability. While some may be more open to calls at any time, I think it is worth considering that they have jobs, families and obligations that are important to them, so respect that.
Personally, I did not actively seek out mentors until much later in my career, especially when I transitioned from the corporate world to entrepreneurship. I certainly could have used them earlier when I struggled with my own insecurities while trying to find a career path I was passionate about.
There were, however, a few individuals that were instrumental and formative in my early career, and looking back at them, I realize now that they were responsive, supportive and encouraging. They were mentors in the truest sense of the word. I don't know that I sought out their advice or mentorship, but when I had it, I most definitely leveraged it.
And if you still struggle to ask for advice, then maybe this advice for students can help you too.