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Dear Cristin: How do you find a mentor?
A common question for "Dear Cristin," finally answered.
This is “Dear Cristin,” where folks ask me for help with their work and worth questions. (Ask your question here.) Today we're going to talk about how to find a mentor.
This is a question I get with some frequency, and it's a good one. You'll often hear interviews with people doing what you want to be doing, and they'll credit a mentor for their growth. You'll think how can I get some of this kind of growth through a magical mentor? And like all magic, it's practical (and also one of my favorite books, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman). Growth through mentorship comes from having the right mentor for YOU and your goals. The right mentor for one person is wrong for another. And the right mentor relationship is right for one person and wrong for someone else. Recognizing that this is a process, not a formula, will help you find a mentor and the right mentorship for you.
So let's work through the process, and it has seven steps. Seven might seem like a lot, but I promise most of them are simple. Although I'll start with being as asshole because the first step is not simple.
First, I want you to sit with the question, why do you want a mentor? I am a big fan of either journaling or having conversations with myself. Journal-wise, I will either sit down with my pen and notebook or open up a new note in my digital notebook. Sometimes, I will have whole-ass conversations with myself. This used to make a person look a touch off, but now, you can pop headphones in and everyone will think you are actually talking to someone else. And sometimes I do actually send myself a Voxer message so I am actually recording the message. Voxer is a walkie-talkie app, but you could even use the audio recorder app that comes with your smartphone. That helps if you want to listen back to the message although I never do. For me it's the process of talking that brings insight. I also have clients who I will have respond to questions from me, and we will record the back and forth on Zoom. Then I can pull the video into Descript (or you could use Otter.AI), and you will have an actual transcript of your responses. Besides asking yourself, "Why do I want a mentor?" also ask yourself:
"What would make this experience good?"
And, "What would happen for me to consider this a success?"
I find that with most people, they experience some sort of success normalization. Normalization is the process of becoming used to conditions over time that at one time seemed extraordinary. So perhaps when you first start working toward a goal, you would be amazingly happy to get to X place. But if you don't identify that place in advance, you'll be at Y place, now far passed X, and still be beating yourself up. I consider this universal advice so put it in your pocket, but in particular for finding a mentor, if you don't know what success looks like, you don't know what to look for. Do you want someone who will hold your feet to the fire? Do you want someone who gives good pep talks? Do you need someone who has done the thing you want to do, maybe navigating a male-dominated space? Maybe succeeding as a Black woman in a white-dominated industry? What matters to you? Write it down and keep it someplace you can refer back to.
For me, I journal or type, but when I have nailed down my specifics, I make a pretty graphic in Canva and keep it someplace prominent, typically in my Milanote. Sometimes it's the background on my desktop. You decide.
Next, our second step is the research phase. Ask friends or colleagues if they have a mentor, and once you've identified a few people that do, ask them what's it like and what do they like about it? I always start with open-ended questions and then dive in as it makes sense to. Be curious! If they aren't happy, why are they sticking with it? How long have they been working with this person? How did they come to meet each other? Is it formalized in any way? Are they paying for mentorship?
Now you might have had a mentor in the past, but I would still do this research phase because I think expectations change over time, and you also can get a lot of useful information from other folks in your space.
As for whether or not you should pay for mentorship, I think it depends on your space. I have never paid to be mentored or had someone pay me. For me, it's about really liking the person and the work they do in the world, and wanting that work to be everywhere. But I do have a few clients that do ongoing maintenance packages with me, and I think if I really interrogated them about why, it's for the ongoing feedback and mentorship that I provide them. Proceed as makes sense to you.
Next step, step 3, is to find your mentor's natural habitat. Most frequently, this is finding professional organizations where your would-be mentor would be a member. This information might come from step 2's research. But this could look different depending on your space. Maybe it's Facebook groups. Maybe it's a Twitter hashtag. Maybe it's Substack or Discord. Maybe it's a type of gathering space like The Wing or We Work, which have both had well-deserved PR nightmares in the COVID-19 pandemic so this is not an endorsement. Finding where the type of person who would be a good fit as your mentor hangs out is a great place to find many of the right type of person. Some colleges and universities have mentor programs for alumni, and some of them have online communities or forums where you can meet each other. Wide net this research and give yourself a lot of options.
And then step 4 is easy. Join the places that make sense. If cost is a barrier, figure out whom you might know who might know whom you're trying to meet. I've seen this go over well in Facebook groups I am in. "Does anyone know someone who X or Y or Z," and you will often find your connection. Be bold!
Step 5 is actually starting to research the folks from step 4 in ways that make sense to you based on your energy and personality. Go to networking events and start there. A lot of places are having virtual events. Or definitely do not do that if it makes you start to tear up. Then maybe go to the member directory instead. Web search the names and find their professional social accounts. Maybe find them on LinkedIn. Maybe find them on Twitter. Read their words. Listen to them if they have been guests on podcasts. Do you like them? Do their values match your values?
Step 6 is gather a list of potential people together. Do you have mutual connections? Do they attend networking events so if you did attend you would get a chance to meet them in person? Could you ask for a coffee chat? Is there some way you could have one on one interaction? This is not to ask for mentorship but to see if you have rapport. I've had many folks get to this step to discover that the person they thought was an ideal mentor was a bad fit. But no harm done because you haven't spoken about mentorship yet. You get to say, whew, dodged a bullet there. But if you do find someone who is a good fit, it's time for step 7 -
Ask if they would be willing to talk to you about mentorship. Do not be upset if they say no. If they do, it means they take mentorship seriously, and that's a good thing. If they say no, head back to step 6 and see who else would be a good fit.
And if they say yes, make sure you set really clear expectations. How often will you meet? About what? Where? What will communication look like in between? And by what avenues? Social DM's might be a no, but text might be perfect. Or maybe only email or maybe no communication in between meetings. And maybe meetings once a month or maybe once a quarter. It's about works best for both of you.
It's also possible to have different mentors for different things. To be so lucky to have more than one!
To summarize what we covered:
Answer the questions: Why do you want a mentor? What would make this experience good? What would happen for me to consider this a success?
Research phase! Ask friends or colleagues if they have a mentor, and once you've identified a few people that do, ask them what's it like and what do they like about it?
Research and find many professional organizations where your mentor would be a member.
Attend networking opportunities, Zoom or otherwise, go to the directory, connect with these folks on LinkedIn, and research folks.
Get together a list of 5 potential people, research if you have mutuals, ask for a coffee chat, meet with them, DO NOT ask for mentorship, and see if you have rapport.
Find someone? Ask them if they might be interested in mentoring you; if they say no, it's okay! It means they take this seriously. Respect their decision. Repeat the process.
There we have it! My process for finding a good fit mentor for you.
If you're looking for practical support like many of my clients, take a look at my package offerings to see how we can work together at workandworthcoach.com/coaching.