There's often burnout and a dip in self-confidence a few years into our professional careers. Much of it comes from the shock of major life-stage changes - going from the feeling that you have life figured out when leaving college to the realization that, to quote GoT, "You know nothing, Jon Snow."
Statistically, most people dislike their first jobs. And, even if you’re one of the lucky few who actually likes their job, manager, and company, it’s not enough to just work hard and be good at your job. It’s on you to find mentors who'll share their wisdom and help you think through your career path. And, it’s equally important - if not more - to find advocates within your company or industry who'll open doors for you.
But before you find a mentor, you absolutely need to know these five golden rules of mentorship.
1. You’re in the driver’s seat.
You’re the biggest beneficiary in this relationship, and your mentor has their own goals to prioritize. So, it’s on you to drive this relationship. The onus is on you to regularly schedule meetings at times that work for them, show up on time, and come prepared with thoughtful agendas to use their time well.
The one hour your mentor spends with you every two weeks could be replacing that one extra hour she could be spending with her kids at home. So, be mindful of her priorities, and make that one hour worth her time.
2. Be goal driven. Keep the asks time-bound and specific.
If I ask you to invest $100 in my friend’s Kickstarter campaign, you'd want to know what the cause is and how they'll use the proceeds, right? You don’t want to commit to something vague and unclear, and neither does your mentor. Never ever approach a panelist and say “I heard your panel. Will you be my mentor?”
Mentors want to know what you need their help with, why you think they're the right ones to help you, and what they're committing to. So, after you feel inspired by that speaker or panelist, or your manager’s manager, say something like this:
“Your <specific perspective/skillset/experience> resonated with me. Are you open to meeting with me once a <week/month/quarter> for <a certain number of months> to mentor me on <a specific goal/project/skill>? This will help me <achieve a specific milestone/make a specific impact>.”
→ "I've been following your blog, and I'm inspired by how you tripled your startup’s revenue in a year using your content strategy. Are you open to meeting with me once a month for the next three months to go over content marketing tips? This will help me effectively build an online community on mentorship."
→ "After spending a year in Sales Development, I'm curious about a career in Sales Operations, and my manager pointed me to you. Would you be open to getting coffee and telling me more about your day-to-day and the skills you look for when hiring? This will help me get clarity on my next steps."
To deliver asks clearly, you need to start by determining your goals and then working backward. I recommend reflecting on the questions below to identify and articulate your goals.
- What do you want to get better at in the next 6-12 months?
- What’s your next career step?
- What networks or skills do you need for that next step?
- Identify someone you've admired from a distance and ask yourself, "How do I want to emulate them?"
- Ask your manager what they perceive to be your areas of strength and areas for improvement.
3. It’s always a two-way street.
Any healthy relationship has the right balance of give and take. If you have a clear goal and a reasonable ask, most people will agree to mentor you. Although, getting a mentor is one thing, and keeping them is another.
Mentors are constantly looking to broaden their horizons, get fresh perspectives, and find worthy problems to solve. More than anything else, they want to feel good about impacting your life meaningfully, and they want to know that you're invested in your development and are willing to put in the work.
The #1 complaint mentors have is that they had amazing meetings but never heard from their mentees. So, if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this article, it’s to follow-up!
- Write thank you emails after your meetings, and be sure to list your takeaways and action items.
- When you act on their advice, let them know how it went and give them closure/feedback.
- When they make introductions for you, keep them posted on what came out of those connections.
If you want to be a super-advanced mentee, here are some more steps you can take:
- Publicly acknowledge their impact on you – in a team meeting, in front of their peers/managers, on your social media. You can tag us at @nextplayinc or use the hashtag #nextplaymentoring, and we'll retweet and share on our social media platforms to amplify the shoutout you want to give them.
- Share their blogs with your network.
- Nominate them for awards and acknowledgments.
- Offer to help them with their work projects.
4. Know the difference between a mentor and a sponsor.
According to CNN Money’s Julia Carpenter, “Mentors are key figures who guide you through the working world. They’re like the rarely-seen guardian angels guiding your career and life along. Sponsors, on the other hand, play another kind of role: they’re the ones actively advocating for your next promotion or raise. They’re pulling you up through the ranks of a company or industry, making sure your name is brought up in closed-door meetings.”
Mentors are experts who can advise you on your goals and next career steps, and can also act as sounding boards to help you think through your problems. But, they aren’t necessarily committing to be your sponsors. And in most cases, they won't have the influence to be one.
For example, a junior content marketing manager at a startup may be a really good mentor for me. But, he likely doesn’t have the networks to get me invited to speak at major tech conferences. It’s important for me to understand the role he can play as well as the role he can’t play in my growth, so that I can smartly leverage his help. Check out my post on finding a good sponsor.
“Mentors are key figures who guide you through the working world. They’re like the rarely-seen guardian angels guiding your career and life along."
5. It’s a numbers game.
Much like dating, mentorship's a bit of a numbers game, and compatibility and chemistry can't be forced. It’s not uncommon to "break up" after your first meeting. But, it’s important that you do this in person, and that you give them closure. Don't go MIA!
You can say, “Hi Jenni, I’ve really appreciated getting to know you, and I’m grateful that you agreed to mentor me. Unfortunately, I’ve realized that I won’t be able to use your time effectively because <I need mentorship on enterprise sales instead of content (a different expertise)/ I need mentorship from a working mother (a specific persona)/etc.>. If it’s okay with you, I’d love to keep in touch through LinkedIn, but I want to be respectful of your time and allow other mentees to tap into your areas of expertise. Thanks for everything.”
That said, I'm a big fan of second chances. One manager ran out of things to discuss with her mentor because he’d just answer questions, instead of extrapolating from them and giving guidance. Once she shared feedback and asked for more direction, he acted on it - ultimately transforming our team’s product strategy. Our CEO always says that a person’s likelihood of success is directly related to their ability to have difficult conversations. I’m thankful that my manager didn’t just "break up" with her mentor, and instead gave him valuable feedback to act on, which improved our business.