THE BLOG
04/02/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

All About Mentors

Dear Christine,

One of the most popular types of career advice I hear is "find a mentor." My problem is that not only do I not have one, I don't even know what kind of mentor to look for. So far I like my career path and life - do I need a mentor? And if I do, how do I find one? And once I find one, how do I ask them to be my mentor? -- Mentorless, 27, Tampa

Dear Mentorless,

Having a mentor is not a necessity. You are not doomed if you do not have one in your lifetime - but you will be missing out on an extremely valuable relationship. I have a handful of people in my life who are mentors I turn to for guidance, support, and course-corrective advice when I am at a crossroads. In fact, writing this column came about because of a relationship with a mentor.

So you don't "need" one, but why wouldn't you want one? If you are getting stuck on who should be your mentor, you are probably either over- or under-thinking it. You're over-thinking it if you are looking for only people in your particular career field who are living the exact life you want to live in five, ten or twenty years. Stop looking for a perfect match and simply identify people who you admire and respect because of their career achievements, personal values, or both.

You are under thinking by assuming there is no one out there who you could ask to be a mentor. Take a review of your life and brainstorm all mentoring possibilities: old professors, past employers or colleagues, friends, your family, and so on. And stretch your mentor brainstorming and make a list of individuals you may not know personally, but could reach out to via a connection or even a cold call or email. There are more wise (a nicer word for "older") individuals out there who would like to be mentors than there are young people asking to be mentees. It is far easier than finding someone to date or even a pair of jeans that fit.

Gabrielle Bernstein, founder of HerFuture.com, the social networking site for girls to find mentors advises: "Sometimes the hardest part of finding a mentor is that you don't know what you want for yourself. If you are unclear about what your passions are, do some research. For instance, there are many unique women sharing their experiences and offering to be of service to the network at HerFuture.com. Once you find someone who has what you want, you have to take steps to do what they do. And in order to do that, make them your mentor. Whether you are seeking a mentor online or in person, a big rule of thumb is don't be shy. Acts of altruism will aid in the process too. I suggest offering to help the person in some way. If you can be of service to them they will undoubtedly give back to you."

Once you determine your target mentor and your method of making a connection, stop making excuses not to instigate this relationship. Cold calling a mentor does not have to be nerve racking because you are not selling anything or seeking employment. You are simply calling to flatter their ego by asking them to be a mentor. Trust me, ANYONE likes to hear they are admired.

All initial mentoring conversations should follow the same type of format regardless of how well you know the person. Begin by telling the mentor you are courting why you respect them and their work. What do you admire about this person? What accomplishments (and you best be able to cite a few specific ones, so do your research!) caught your attention? What has he or she done or what is he or she doing now that is similar to your aspirations? Next, share with your potential mentor your intention to build a team of advisors around you whom you respect. Ask if he or she would be open to being a mentor to you. Be upfront about your expectations in terms of a time commitment and accessibility to your mentor. Determine how often he or she is willing to either meet or talk by phone. I suggest a minimum of a thirty minute monthly conversation. If the answer is "yes," express your gratitude and continue with the conversation.

It's critical to ask questions in your initial talk with your mentor other than, "Will you be my mentor?" Asking for guidance is important because it immediately puts your mentor in the role of mentoring. Otherwise the conversation becomes more of an informational interview than a true mentoring relationship. But don't ask questions that are vague, presumptuous, or impossible for anyone without a crystal ball to answer such as, "What should I do with my life?" or "When should I get married?" or "Do you think you can help me get a better job?" Instead, keep your questions relevant and specific like, "I am considering grad school, what are your thoughts on that?" or "How do you balance your work and personal life?" or "What do you consider your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?"

Conclude the conversation by setting your next appointment with your mentor. To prepare, make a list of things you want to share with your mentor and possible questions. Keep close to your mentor by sending periodic update emails in between your conversations. Check in with your mentor to keep abreast of what is going on in your mentor's. Resist making the relationship all about you.

Having mentors enriches your human experience. They become your unbiased cheerleaders who have "been there, done that" and selflessly encourage you. And I suspect once you recognize the tremendous value of having a mentor, you will be inspired to be one to someone else. * Christine


Please send me your questions by posting them in the comments section below. You can also email me at christine@huffingtonpost.com