Mentorship is a concept that's popular in the business world, though it means different things to different people. In general, two professionals dedicate time to discuss their careers, and the more experienced of the two offers advice on leadership, fundraising, setting priorities, or whatever challenges the mentee faces. While a mentor can provide insights into your business and can help you grow as a leader, formally requesting someone to be your mentor can be downright awkward. Do you look for someone you know, or can you seek someone out on LinkedIn? How often should you meet? Should it be someone you work with? What if the relationship goes sour?
The good news is that starting a mentorship doesn't have to be an uncomfortable, formal affair. After all, the great advice you receive from family and friends doesn't begin after you send an email with the subject line, "When You Have a Moment, Please Consider Giving Your Opinion About My Life." People become interested in you and want to help you when they know who you are and interact with you often. Here are two simple steps you can take to build a relationship that's comfortable and enriching for both of you.
Cultivate a Relationship
To get the question of LinkedIn out of the way, the person you want to be your mentor should be someone you know. Even if you admire an expert in your field from afar, it comes off as disingenuous if you ask him or her to mentor you with no prior interaction. How do you know you'll work well with someone if you've never even spent an hour in a room together?
Before you go on a hunt for a mentor, determine if there is someone in your circle who you see on a regular basis that gives you solid career advice. Mentorship may mean that you set up a consistent time to meet with that person and that you let them know that you value their insights. The word "mentor" doesn't need to come up if you feel that it puts too much pressure on the relationship, but do make it clear that you're looking for an intentional relationship to help you grow in your career.
If you're having trouble picking out a mentor in your immediate circle, but one of your favorite thought leaders lives nearby, there's no harm in reaching out to buy that person coffee. If you're friendly, straightforward, and make it easy for him or her to meet with you, there's a fair chance they'll say yes. You could be on your way to a relationship that becomes a mentorship down the road.
Whether you explicitly agree to a mentorship relationship or it happens organically, it's important to understand and respect your mentor's time. Some people may prefer to meet only on the third Thursday of the month, while others might not care if you text them out of the blue with a hiring question. Learn how your mentor treats his or her time, and don't be offended if they set strict limitations on the time they spend with you. If they place high value on their time and choose to spend part of it with you, it's a privilege, not a right.
Likewise, you and your mentor should have the same intentions for the relationship. If you want someone to challenge you and push you on a regular basis, let that be known to your mentor and make sure they have the bandwidth to hold you accountable. If you're looking for someone to be an occasional sounding board for your ideas, make sure your mentor is comfortable with some distance. As a general rule, your mentor shouldn't be financially involved in your company or offer advice about issues in your personal life. His or her business advice could be skewed by the desire to protect an investment at all costs, and in-depth knowledge of your personal life could distract from the mentor's focus on your career development.
Though the process of choosing a mentor can seem awkward, keep in mind that the most fruitful mentorships are based on relationships. Make the effort to engage someone you know and respect, and they'll be excited to help you and your business succeed.