Cover Expert advice on how to find a mentor (photo: Getty Images)

Mentorship could be the key to unlocking both professional and personal success. Top career coaches and entrepreneurs explain exactly how to find a mentor

Whether it's a friendly industry luminary, a particularly helpful network contact, a former boss, or a wise guidance counselor—a great mentor can be invaluable in your career or personal development. Whether you're looking to grow in your current field, develop a personal project, or pivot careers, finding a mentor and cultivating a productive, positive, longstanding relationship with that person isn't always easy. Tatler asked some top recruiters, entrepreneurs, and career coaches for their best advice on how to find a mentor and establish a good rapport. Here's what we learned.

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Do you want a mentor or a coach?

"First, decide if you need actually need or want a mentor," says Michelle Duval, a business coach and CEO of Fingerprint for Success. "Many use the terms mentoring and coaching synonymously but they are actually very different support systems—each powerful in their own right. A mentor is an expert in a domain or field you want to get awesome at and help you fast track your success and avoid pitfalls. They will give you their advice and help guide you. On the other hand, a coach is an expert in helping you realize your unique ideas and abilities and helps you hone your own expertise. There is a role for both but important to know when you are actually looking for guidance (mentoring) versus powerhouse questions (coaching) that invite you to come up with new personal insights and actions."

Decide what you're looking for in a mentorship

"Think critically on what you need from mentorship and who are the people who can get you there," says Nadia Ibrahim-Taney, a university career coach and lecturer. "While having a 40-year veteran CEO mentor looks good on paper, if your goal is to obtain an entry level position at a company, you need to ask yourself how much does the CEO know about hiring? Or networking with entry level folks?

"Matching your mentors with goals helps you better understand what you need out of a mentor and thus, who you should ask," she says. "My second tip is to be direct in your mentorship ask. Mentors should know you want their time, commitment and vested interest in your career. Having defined roles with clear expectations helps both the mentor and mentee get the most out of the relationship without any awkward confusion or assumptions on what you mean to each other. Lastly, have multiple mentors. Particularly if you are young and are unsure of your career path.

"Having multiple people in your 'boardroom' giving you advice from a diversity of thought, positioning and perspective gives you the opportunity to take what you like and leave what you don’t. Mentors offer advice and opinions and oftentimes they can conflict with things you’ve heard from other sources, so be critical and thoughtful on what advice you take and what elements you leave."

Start by scouting your alumni networks

"This may sound traditional but finding fellow alumni from your former university through social media, mainly LinkedIn, is an incredible way to approach someone to be your mentor," says Akbar Hamid, founder and CEO of 5th Column. "This is a very strong point of connection that both you and your fellow alumni share, usually with very fond memories that are a great way to start up a conversation. I personally always respond if a fellow Tulane University graduate reaches out to me as there is an immediate connection and desire to support."

Leverage social media groups

"Leverage public or proprietary social networking tools like LinkedIn or your company’s intranet social hub," says Halelly Azulay, CEO of TalentGrow. "Look to topical forums like Reddit or LinkedIn special interest groups for places where experts hang out with novices to discuss common topics, tools, or ideas that interest you and about which you want to learn more. Subject matter experts and people with interesting perspectives will emerge when you actively engage and participate. Those people have the potential to become your mentor, and you can approach them to gauge their interest."

Look beyond your immediate circles

"Quite often we seek mentors from our current network," says Emma Maslen, vice president and general manager, of Ping Identity, EMEA and APAC. "A great piece of advice I like to give is to seek out a mentor outside of your comfort zone, so as to really stretch your skill development. As the six degrees of separation theory shows, we all have new amazing mentors always within our reach. So my first tip is to think about a skills set or experience you would like to develop, and think about who could connect you to someone different—perhaps more senior than you had previously sought mentorship from. Stretching ourselves is how we grow, so let’s not just seek counsel from the same people."

Or stay closer to home

"To find a mentor, you need to evaluate your network," says Jeremy Harrison, founder of Hustle Life. "Find someone that you look up to, someone that you would like to become someday. It might be a colleague, or a former boss (not your supervisor), or a friend that's also in the same niche.

"Try to find great mentors through the inspiring people you're already interacting and working with now. They need to be people to whom you have already demonstrated your potential. People who know how you think, act, communicate, and contribute. And they have to like, trust and believe in you already. The key here is to find someone you already know and not a stranger. Asking a stranger to be your mentor would always end up with a resounding no.

"Once you have a list, do the research. Find out how these people got to where they are now. What steps do you need to take? What skills do you need to learn? The more you know about them, the better you can decide if he's an excellent fit for you or not."

Let the relationship develop organically

"In my experience the best way to do it is organically by getting to know potential mentors over time through casual exchanges,  lunches, coffees, e-mails, etc.," says Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls. "Once a history and relationship is there only then share with them how valuable their advice and counsel has been to you and tell them you have considered them a mentor and champion for a while and see how they react. That usually leads to formalizing the relationship if all goes well. I have also joined formal mentoring programs through professional networking groups (women business owners, industry/trade) and alumni clubs which paired me with great mentors over the years."

But don't be too subtle

"Ask," Azulay says. "It seems so simple, but lots of people keep their interest in a mentor a secret—they just harbor these thoughts internally and don’t share them with others. If others you trust know that you’re looking for a mentor (and what knowledge base or characteristics you specifically seek), they’ll be more likely to start to notice people who fit your criteria in their own networks and can make recommendations and even introductions. People love to help, so all you need to do is make sure you ask!"

Keep your options open, casting a wide net

"Plan to speak with a few people on your list," says Manmeet Singh Fox, executive coach and CEO of Pitcher & Crow Leadership Effectiveness. "After talking with several people, you'll be able to identify whose professional path and experience resonates best for you and with whom you feel a comfortable interpersonal rapport.

"If you're lucky, you may find several new mentors! If your prospective mentor is not someone you already know, ask someone you mutually know to make the introduction, if possible; alternatively, reach out directly by email or LinkedIn. Briefly share your goals with them in your introduction so they understand where you are heading and how your paths align. Ask if they would be open to sharing 30 minutes of their time with you via Zoom or other video solution so you can learn how they achieved the goal(s) you have for yourself, and lessons they learned along the way. Prepare some questions for your first meeting, so you make the best use of their time."

How to make the ask

"When reaching out to someone and asking them to be your mentor, you should treat it like an application letter," says Marie Krebs, the people operations manager at Learnerbly. "A good structure for this would be to include an introduction, the desired outcome, why and how this potential mentors experience is relevant, a suggested plan and next steps. Always be specific to the person you’re reaching out to and show you’ve done your research."

Remember to be considerate

And, while "most people will be flattered to be asked to be a mentor, it’s important to be cognizant of how busy they may be," says Million Women Mentor CEO Jo Webber. "The higher up a person is, the more limited their available time will be. It’s important to find a mentor who is genuinely interested in the area you are interested in and someone who has time for you."

Keep a positive, open mind

"Show up with vision, not baggage," says Stacy Cassio, founder of the Pink Mentor Network. "Unlike coaching, mentorship is not a paid gig. Mentors want to help us reach the next level, not sort out the baggage we've collected along the way." And "don't ask for 'mentorship,'" she says. "Ask about the mentor's experience, expertise, or knowledge. We often overcomplicate the relationship by making it 'official' and awkward. Simply ask for what you seek to learn."

Always offer to give back

"Offer to pay for access," says James Pollard, who runs TheAdvisorCoach.com. "This will help you stand out and it will show the mentor you're serious. Out of the many mentoring requests I've gotten over the years, less than two per cent have offered to pay me for my time. The rest just wanted to 'pick my brain,' 'jump on a quick call,' or 'set up a chat.' At the very least, ask the person if there is a charity he/she supports and offer to make a donation to the charity in that person's name in exchange for an hour or so of mentoring. I've personally done this with several people and it's helped me immensely."

Consider establishing some structure

"Staying in contact with regular touch-bases and respecting your mentor's time is very important," Hamid says. "Try and set up an ongoing bi-weekly or quarterly touch base and have a very well thought out agenda of questions and topics you want to discuss. And make sure you research the topic, career, industry you want to discuss so you are informed and can really make the best use of your mentor's time. Time is so valuable so if your mentor is giving you two hours every month they want to make sure the time is productive and results in your growth."

And remember that as a mentee, it's up to you to keep things on track. 

"The cadence of the relationship is on the mentee," Cassio says. "Mentorship is not a regularly scheduled appointment. It's a question when you have it, and then gratitude and feedback when you use it. When we tell a mentor their time and experience mattered, we're opening the door to receive more."

Prioritize this opportunity you've been given

"My first simple tip for maintaining the mentoring relationship is to book your time in," Maslen says. "Agree how frequently you are going to get together and commit yourselves to these meetings. Don’t let other priorities get in the way. Nothing is more important than your development."

Take responsibility

"Remember, as the mentee, you drive the relationship," says Genny Heikka, author, motivational speaker, and professional coach. "Your mentor is generously giving of his or her time to help you develop and grow, so be prepared with a few specific questions each time you meet, stick to the amount of time agreed upon and always follow-up with a thank you note or email. Be sure to share your successes with your mentor, too so they have visibility to the growth they are helping you with."

Keep it professional

"Keep the mentor-mentee relationship professional," says William Taylor, Senior Recruitment Advisor at VelvetJobs. "You will hear all sorts of comments and feedback from your mentor and some will definitely be negative. Just take it as a constructive criticism and work on it, because it is nothing personal. That is why it is important to separate professional from personal relationships to ensure that the personal aspect won't get in the way of the mentorship."

Follow through with actions

"Make sure that if you agree to actions at the end of the meeting that you deliver on those actions and show progress," Maslen says. "Mentors give up their time for free. They invest their time because it feels good to help people. If they don’t see progress, the mentor stops seeing value and the sessions/ relationship come to an end. In order for mentors to keep investing, make sure you show progress and give thanks."

Pollard agrees: "The best way to maintain a good mentor/mentee relationship is to do what your mentor suggests. Nothing is more frustrating to a mentor than him/her giving you the actual advice that will work in your situation, only to see you ignore it. When you do this, you discount the mentor's experience and knowledge. It's frustrating. So, listen to the advice and implement it."