I’ve been thinking a lot about mentorship lately – who has a mentor and who does not, how mentor relationships arise, and what it takes to find a mentor. So, it was very timely when a friend recently emailed me and said, “I think of you as a mentor.”
“Wait, WHAT?!” I gasped at my computer screen. I considered our relationship over the past decade. What have I said? Were my comments thoughtful or off-the-cuff? What have I encouraged or discouraged her to do? And then once the initial panic of responsibility subsided, I felt flattered and complimented that my friend valued me and my role in her life.
The interaction made me realize that mentorship moments are much more prolific than I had realized, which means that having mentors is probably more accessible to each of us than we had previously thought. That’s exciting news.
WHAT IS A MENTOR AND HOW DO I GET ONE?
A mentor is someone who has more experience than you in a certain component of life and can provide advice or coaching when you need it. For my friend, she saw me as a mentor for navigating a non-traditional career path.
However, there are things in my friend’s life for which I don’t have experience. For instance, as someone without children, I could “armchair quarterback” advice on how to raise kids, but that’s probably not very helpful to her. For a topic like that, she might seek an alternate mentor.
WHAT IS A BOARD OF DIRECTORS AND WHAT SHOULD MINE LOOK LIKE?
And that’s the deal: the secret of mentorship is that you’re not just looking for one mentor, you’re looking for several mentors, with a variety of experiences and sources of wisdom. You are looking to create your own personal board of directors.
Think about some of the world's most successful businesses and research their boards of directors. Generally, you’ll find a collection of people with deep experience in an industry and/or function and a diversity of backgrounds. The idea is that these are people who can support and guide the CEO, while also providing her with direct advice that can sometimes be hard to hear. CEOs want the best people with the most trustworthy perspectives on topics important to them, not people who agree with everything they believe. The same should be true for you as you seek-out mentors.
Sure, securing more than one mentor will increase your leg work a bit, but it will also ensure that you’re getting the best advice on a variety of topics that are top of mind for you. And, most importantly, it’s making each prospective mentor’s job easier because they can be more focused on what topics you are requesting them to influence in your life. Once I was clear on what my friend needed from me as a mentor, I became more confident in providing her thoughtful, relevant advice.
HOW TO INVITE SOMEONE TO JOIN YOUR BOARD OF DIRECTORS
To find the right people for your board of directors, you have to start interviewing! Begin with one or two of the biggest issues you’re facing and think about who you know who could be a helpful advisor. Reach out to a few of these people with a clear ask, something like:
I hope you’re well. I know that it’s been a few months since we worked together, but I’m seeking your advice about a situation at my current company that I have been thinking about a lot. Your perspective has always been valuable to me, particulary as I think of team management.
I am currently managing a team of three direct reports with at least two people reporting in to each of them. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed at the moment as I try to balance my project work with meeting the needs of my team. You always made managing look so easy and rewarding – I would value your advice and mentorship as I consider my next steps.
Please let me know if you would be willing to have a 30-minute conversation with me over the next two weeks. Thank you in advance for considering my request!
This message is good because it has a clear ask: 30 minutes for advice and mentorship over a situation that you’ve provided the basic gist of. Your prospective mentor knows what she is getting into.
It also doesn’t hurt that there is some honest flattery in the message. You are reaching out to a prospective mentor because you admire something about them – tell them what you admire!
What if this person declines your request? The great news is in that in seventeen years of coaching, I have only seen requests like this declined because the prospective mentor doesn’t have time, has something personal that they’re attending to, or perhaps the message unknowingly went to their junk mail folder, and they didn’t respond. Most prospective mentors are willing to have at least one conversation.
You might consider running your situation by a few prospective mentors to get multiple takes on what you should do. That will help you see which ideas and perspectives best resonate with you and who might be the best mentor for you on a topic going forward.
Once you have a mentor in mind for a specific kind of advice, consider formally asking them to be part of your board of directors. Provide clarity on the kinds of topics you might come to them with, so that they can start associating you with those topics.
KEEP YOUR BOARD OF DIRECTORS UPDATED
And that’s it, right? You can just reach out to these people when needed and run ideas by them? Well, no. Just like with a company’s board of directors, it is your job as the CEO of your life to keep your board members updated on your activity, including achievements and challenges.
Unlike a CEO updating her board, though, your updates don’t have to be as detailed or frequent. Consider providing updates every six months. For example:
Thank you again for agreeing to be on my personal “board of directors.” I highly value your advice and mentorship. I learned a lot from you on our last call about managing my busy team and balancing my individual contributions to the firm. I look forward to our future conversations.
In order to make the most of your time on our mentoring calls, I thought it would be helpful to share semi-annual updates on my progress at work and major personal accomplishments. Here are some highlights of the past six months:
Promoted to EVP, Client Marketing in my latest annual review
Promotion comes with oversight of two additional teams (+2 direct reports and +8 indirect reports)
Raised >$50k for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute as a participant in the Pan-Mass Challenge cycling event
Follow-up related to our previous conversations about team management:
Successfully lobbied for the promotion of two direct reports, an investment in their career development they’ve each been working toward
Enrolled in the manager coaching program you mentioned
I’ve started blocking time on my calendar for specific projects, as you suggested. Sticking to this practice is still a work in progress!
What I’d like to discuss in our next call:
How to think about transferring projects to direct reports so I can focus on strategy and team development.
I look forward to talking with you in a few weeks. Thank you again for investing your time with me!
And then your work is done, right? Again, no. Your board of directors will likely be dynamic. Just like a company enters different stages of maturity, you will grow and change personally and professionally, and so will your board members. The advice you need at one point in your career might be different from the wisdom you seek at another point, and those who were once very generous with their time might encounter moments in which they have less time to share. Don’t take anyone for granted and always thank your mentors for each conversation. Remember them with a card and/or a gift at birthdays and other holiday celebrations.
One more thought: let’s make mentorship a virtuous cycle. In gratitude of the time others are offering you, offer your own time to mentor others.
Have more questions about mentorship, leadership, or other career-related coaching topics? Reach out to Alex Los, Executive and Leadership Coach, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Kayla Farmer on Unsplash