Most of us now appreciate the importance of having a career mentor (or indeed mentors). But without participating in a formal programme offered by a university, diversity organisation or an employer how do you go about finding a mentor?

Immediately after speaking at an event earlier this year (obviously before lockdown!) an aspiring lawyer approached me and asked if I’d become her mentor. Blown away by the young stranger’s confidence, I almost found myself saying yes but politely declined and explained that whilst I’m happy to offer one-off generic advice during networking conversations I typically charge for my professional career consulting services.

Still keen to help, I advised her that there are more appropriate ways to kick-start an informal mentoring relationship, which don’t involve randomly walking up to aliens or parting with one’s hard-earned cash. It’s simply all about harnessing your existing connections and taking a more strategic approach to relationship building that puts trust, respect and reciprocation at its heart.

Common myths about mentoring

Before I discuss how to go about finding a career mentor, let me dispel a few common myths about the mentor / mentee relationship. Firstly, before you stop reading my blog because you think it’s too early in your career to secure a mentor, it’s important to note that mentoring isn’t the preserve of senior well-connected professionals. Related to this, your mentor doesn’t have to be more senior or older than you. Secondly, you don’t have to work for an organisation that offers a formal mentoring programme to benefit. Indeed, there are plenty of arguments in favour of having mentors that are independent to your place of work. Similarly, they don’t necessarily have to be in exactly the same line of work as you – think diversity of thought.

Thirdly and most significantly, please don’t expect your mentor to have magic answers to all your career-related concerns, challenges and / or goals. His / her role involves: acting as a positive role model, a confidential sounding board and a patient industry expert; offering inspiration and guidance; educating, sense checking and informing without an agenda or passing judgement; holding mentees accountable to their goals by encouraging, motivating and challenging ideas / thoughts.

The relationship will typically focus on the mentee’s personal development objectives and elements of behavioural change rather than simply fixing something that’s gone awry. Some mentors also act as potential bridges who can connect you to contacts outside your immediate network.

What are your needs?

With myths dispelled, let’s crack on with finding a mentor. But before pinging out email requests or invites for Zoom coffees, I’d recommend starting off by assessing your career vision and related future developmental needs. Where do you want to be in the short, medium and long-term? What obstacles stand in your way? Do you have a potential skills deficit, weakness or simply lack knowledge about your sector? Are you considering a change in career direction but short of ideas or unsure what’s achievable? Do you need a steer on how to manage a difficult relationship at work?

Who do you know?

Once you’ve done the initial legwork and identified your needs the next step is to run a LinkedIn / address book audit. Who in your current network has a proven track record of overcoming some of the hurdles that stand in your way? Are they now where you aspire to be in the future? Who do you admire most in your professional and indeed personal circles?

When searching for your career mentor(s), consider current and past colleagues, former tutors, former clients, friends and even family members.

Depending on your needs and the make-up of your current network, you may find that the best approach to adopt is to enlist a different individual for each area you’ve identified. Personally, I’ve compartmentalised my mentors into the following:

  • My “champions” – senior influential individuals who I know will always have my back and be dedicated advocates for any new ventures / causes I’m about to embark on / devote my time on.
  • My “gurus” – individuals I turn to for their brain power to fill a gap in my knowledge or run new ideas by.
  • My “agony aunts” – contacts who know me really well and I turn to when something is troubling me, or I simply need a shoulder to cry on. I know that they will offer me sound advice without judging and making me feel silly. But they won’t let me off the hook either and will challenge my behaviour and stop me from cutting off my nose in spite of my face.
  • My “shining lights” – probably friends than mentors but these calming individuals are my instant pick me ups and are great for when I’m having a bad day.
  • My “wingmen/women” – contemporaries who are going through similar life and career experiences and who can I can bounce ideas with and vice versa.

Making the initial approach

As is the case with all relationships, the way you approach a potential mentor will depend on some basic criteria – how long have you known the individual and what is the nature and quality of your relationship with them? When was the last time you were in contact? How senior are they? Then, based on your answers simply ask yourself – is what I’m about to ask this person reasonable and what might be in it for them? What type of approach are they most likely to respond positively to?

Starting the initial conversation can be as simple as telling your potential mentor that you admire them for xxxxxxx and that you’d really appreciate their help with xxxx. For example, you could say the following: “I really admire you for your bold decision to quit law to join a start-up. I’m thinking about doing something similar but not sure where to start so I’d really appreciate your help to bounce some ideas.”

Longer-term meaningful relationships 

Most formal mentoring programmes run for a fixed period of time but ‘informal’ relationships you start with mentors you’ve personally identified from your own network can last for as long as you want and in some instances may be as short as a one-off conversation followed by a thank you note. Many relationships will naturally fizzle out over time (so remember to replenish) whilst a limited few are also likely to last forever.

Either way, building longer-term meaningful relationships requires attention and effort. Also, show respect towards your mentor by being punctual for meetings and avoid cancelling at short notice. Make every conversation / email exchange count by doing appropriate preparation and have a proper think about what you’d really like to take away from each encounter to ensure it’s a good use of both parties’ time. Finally, don’t be greedy. We’re all busy so avoid over-burdening your mentor(s) and don’t expect them to do all the work.