Crack open any career development book these days and it’ll probably tell you to go find a mentor.
Mentors, these mythical creatures, will give you completely unbiased career advice, they’ll introduce you to awesome people and make sure your career trajectory is consistently upwards trending.
Heck, some might even help you land your dream role.
The reality is, as amazing as these mentors are, it takes time and effort to build up an awesome career mentor relationship.
Mentorships, when done right, are amazing experiences for both the mentee and mentor. A lot of mentors actually started as being mentees, and now they want to pay it forward. So, how do you actually build meaningful mentor relationships?
Finding a good mentor
Ok let’s be real, it’s not exactly easy to just find your perfect mentor. It’s a journey that often takes a bit of time, lots of introspection and a lot of trial and error.
For our readers who are still on the lookout for a career mentor, Kiya has this to say about the ‘dating’ process:
Put yourself out there. Once you’ve identified a challenge or opportunity to seek mentorship, join groups that provide access to startups like Earlywork. Introduce yourself and ask questions. The first person you ask will likely not be the person who ends up mentoring you – ask questions anyway.
It’s ok to ‘date’ a bit. It’s also okay to ‘date’ a bit before asking for something more formal or structured. This often means the relationship can start organically with a ‘virtual coffee’ and not following a cold email request asking to be a mentor. Try not to put pressure on yourself to find an ‘official mentor’ – some of the best mentors in my life are people I chat with regularly but have never made it Facebook official with.
Seek out vibe over job title. A brilliant mentor doesn’t have to be in the same occupation as you. The similarity might just be the stage of a startup or the sector it’s disrupting. Having a good vibe in a mentoring relationship can often lead to far better outcomes than just seeking out someone who’s a few job titles ahead of you.
Building meaningful relationships with your mentors
Just like any good relationship, it’s a two-way street
The first big misconception about mentorship is that it’s all about giving time and advice to the mentee. However, as both David and Bryce will explain, both people need to understand and align with each other’s goals
“It is a two-way street so best to align expectations of each other early. I find many mentees don't feel like they have much to offer but that couldn't be further from the truth. Most mentors just want to give back or pay it forward. If so, sharing back what you have learnt or actions you have taken off the back of conversations is important. Depending on how the catch-ups go, it could be just a genuine thank-you message, a summary of the conversation, actions you'd take, or confirming a proposed date for the next catch up. It is not motivating when a mentee commits to taking an action and then in the following meeting, the mentee asks the same question again.”
“Treat these relationships like a two-way street. It's not just you getting help, find out more about your mentor and what they care about might help them with things out in the future too! We're all human and our positions might be switched in the future.” 😉
Seek guidance, not answers
Mentors are not the back-of-the-book answers to your career problems, nor are they just a means to getting connected to a recruiter. Our mentors laid out some do’s and don’ts, as well as the kind of help you should expect to get from a mentor.
“Be considerate to your mentor. Don’t ask for connections or introductions for the sake of it. Only ask when you really think it would be helpful and they’ll be more likely to respect your ask. If they do say yes to providing an introduction, send them a blurb that they can rephrase in their own voice to make the intro easier to send.”
“I’ve heard that some mentees straight up came to ask for help with job opportunities and nothing else! I understand some of us might be in a tough place but not treating us as human and as some NPC (non-playable character in games) takes the joy from the sessions.”
“The role of a mentor is not to fix things for you. If you want someone to do this, find a career consultant. The role of mentors is to provide guidance and advice. It’s to broaden both your surface area of connections and your view on pathways, solutions and opportunities. Don’t seek out a manual – because no two journeys will ever be the same.”
Make life easy, for both of you
As a mentee, you’re definitely in the “driver’s seat”, and you have a chance to really work together with someone to achieve your goals. Communication and being clear about your goals are two important aspects of a mentor relationship.
“Your mentor genuinely wants to help, will do their best to make time but doesn't have an endless amount of time. If there is no clear goal, as a mentor, I don't know how I can help, and if I am even the right person to help. As a start, try to think about (1) purpose, (2) context, and (3) proposed outcomes. When you accomplish your goals, you can ask to see if they would like to help you work on your next goal.”
“Always be clear on what you want to achieve with your mentor. Note: this is not always the same as knowing what you want. You can be clear about not knowing – often it’s the not knowing which leads us to seek out mentor relationships in the first place. Be clear, and if you're finding it tough to be clear, do your best to avoid being unspecific. Example; ‘I’m having a challenging time figuring out whether to X over X. I would like your help to navigate this so I can decide which path is right for me.’ is easier for a mentor to navigate compared to, ‘I have no idea what to do.’”
Be specific in your questions. It’ll help you get more out of the relationship and signal that you value your mentor’s time. They’ll also see you as more proactive and more likely to feel like you’re getting value out of their time (which is important because it makes them feel better about spending their time with you). Share upfront what you want to discuss in your conversation or email and why it’s important to you.
Bonus tip: when it’s time to go, it’s time to go
Recently, we had an anonymous question submitted to the Earlywork Community #questions channel around how to “break up” with a mentor relationship that wasn’t quite the vibe.
“Any advice on how to go about parting ways with a career mentor you don’t think you’re compatible with anymore?”
Perhaps you got paired with someone as part of a program, your goals or expectations have changed, or you simply aren’t a good match. Either way, honesty is the best policy here, and our community members definitely agree:
- “Be transparent with your mentor. I’m sure they’d appreciate the honesty and feedback so that you don’t waste each other’s time”
- “Time is our most precious resource...It’s way better to say no - to make space for a better yes!”
- “Can your mentor move into a sponsor role instead?” More on the concept of “sponsorship” here
Kiya offers a great perspective on how to think about the “success” of a mentor relationship by impact - not time.
“Most mentoring relationships start with a clear challenge you want help with. Once this challenge is ‘solved’, some mentors will stick around and others might not be so focal. Just like your career, these relationships will evolve – measure success by the impact on the challenge, not how many years you speak to them.”