What it means to have a mentor and how to find the perfect one
Ask any leader whom you admire what they attribute their success to and 98% of them will list their mentors among their top factors. During my career, I have always felt like I’ve struggled to find mentors. There is David Waid, my once-boss and now business partner, who truly took me under his wing and taught me everything he knows about politics and campaigns. He is the very definition of the word “mentor.”
But I always got the sense that I was supposed to have a bank of mentors who should take me to lunch, send me homework, and guide me along the path to career dominance. And the fact that I didn’t have that mentorship felt like a huge failing on my part. I felt like everyone else knew how to find these mysterious mentors, and my lack of mentors pretty much guaranteed my inevitable failure. I became pretty confident that I was not mentor-able.
When I became CEO of Javelina at the start of the year, I was immediately faced with more questions than answers. My lack of mentors felt more overwhelming than ever.
One day at that time, I had a lunch on my calendar with a prominent local lawyer. We were supposed to be talking about local policy issues, having worked together on a transportation funding initiative the previous year. Yet I was distracted with a problem I was having with the team that I didn’t know how to approach. Without really thinking it through, I found myself outlining the problem to my lawyer acquaintance, asking what he would do in my situation. His answer was thoughtful, complete and helpful. I left lunch with a clearer sense of how I was going to tackle my problem.
The next week, I had lunch with an incredible nonprofit leader. I forget what we were supposed to be talking about. What we actually talked about was a problem I was facing with one of our internal systems. It wasn’t working and I couldn’t figure out why. She gave me her advice and perspective. Afterwards, she emailed me some resources that had worked for her. Once again, I had a path forward.
This was working so well that I kept doing it. Many coffees and lunches were punctuated by me asking advice about a particular challenge I was facing. And guess what? My advisors not only gave me amazing information, but they followed up, shared resources, and connected me to others who could help. All of a sudden, here was my team of mentors. And yet, not once in these incredible conversations did any of us utter the word “mentor.”
Many of my mentors don’t even know my name. Many of my new mentors – who have solved my problems, given me advice and inspiration, and connected me to other helpful resources – are thought leaders, authors, and experts whose advice I have consumed via podcast, article, book and online video. (Check out my recent Women on Business article for three of my favorite podcasts).
Dictionary.com defines a mentor as “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher”, not “a person who takes you to lunch and tells you how to become really good at your job.”
Here’s what I’ve learned: the problem wasn’t thatI didn’t have mentors, it was that my definition of a mentor was wrong. All along, I had trusted counselors and teachers. From the beginning, I had friends who gave me advice, colleagues I learned from, and clients who made me better. A mentor doesn’t have to be someone older than you, or someone who you see every day. A mentor isn’t necessarily someone who works in your industry or someone who even knows you exist.
Looking for mentors? Here’s how you do it:
1. Identify a problem you have or something you don’t know how to approach. If this problem is something big, try and break it down into smaller chunks. For example, if your problem is “I don’t know what I want to do with my life”, think about what you DO know. You might make a list of the things you definitely don’t want to do, or think of the types of jobs that might make you happy. For example, “I definitely don’t want to work in an office” or “I want to work with children in some way.”
2. Think of a few people who may have dealt with this problem or issue before. For example, if you know you want to work with children, maybe you’ll identify someone working in education right now and contact them so you can find out more about their day-to-day. The person you are reaching out to might be someone you know, or someone you don’t. It might be someone that lives in this country or not. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it has to be someone you have already met or see regularly. Don’t limit yourself.”
3. Contact them. If you know them, email or call and outline what you’d like to talk to them about. Be specific. If you don’t know them, find a way to reach them (LinkedIn or other social media sites through a mutual connection is a great first step) and ask for 30 minutes of their time. Include the questions you’d like to talk to them about. If the person you’ve identified is a podcast host, TED Talk presenter or YouTube sensation, listen to their material and take notes. Maybe ask a friend or coworker to watch/listen too, and you can discuss it together.
4. Follow up. Stay in touch with them. The person who helped you (whether they know you or not) would LOVE to hear that. Send them a thank you note, and then let them know how it is going for you. Shoot them a mention on social media. I regularly email or tweet thought leaders who have helped me – and they almost always reply.
Follow these steps and you’ll have an army of mentors before you know it. And even better, you’ll be a mentor too. I have learned that mentorship is not linear, but reciprocal. When I ask my lunch companions for advice, they quite often come back with questions about whatever problem they’re facing. And being able to give a fresh perspective on someone else’s challenge is truly fulfilling.