Make The Ask
"A lot of people say mentorship is a sort of teacher-student relationship, but I would add that there really is a mutual respect for each other," Kim says. "When mentors identify people they want to be a mentor to, [it's because] they see potential in them, want to get to know them, and invest time in them. That’s why that relationship is successful."
There's a better chance that someone you're already acquainted with will feel invested in you, so don't go far afield at the start. Think about the people in your immediate network whom you admire, and then extend your search outward to second- or third-degree connections if you can't identify someone closer. In those cases, you might want to ask a mutual friend or colleague (current or former, depending on your comfort level) for an introduction.
"In some ways, it's an informational interview to learn about somebody who has taken more steps in their career than you have," she says. "Communicate what your needs are and how you think they could help. After you learn more about them, you might find out that person isn't the best person to help you with this. You never know based on what you see online, or what they’re posting on LinkedIn."
If things look promising, and you move into the idea of possible mentoring relationship, begin to discuss a loose timeline for the experience. Even if they don't say it out loud, one of the first questions a potential mentor has will be: What timeframe do you have in mind for this?
Establishing whether you hope to work together for a short- or long-term period gives them a clearer idea of the time investment on their part. They may not be able to commit to what you have in mind precisely, or at all. It's best to know that from the beginning.
Find Someone Who Understands Your Needs
Dana Grossman Leeman, the associate dean for online education and program director at the Simmons School of Social Work, has observed the positive impact of mentorship programs in higher education in person.
"I had educated parents, and there are ways in which I have been able to enjoy a fundamental, assumptive belief that my voice would matter, most of the time, even though I was a woman," she says. "That is very different than most of our students who, because of being women, women of color, and poor women of color, never have the privilege of assuming that."
Hoping to improve the attrition rates of first-generation students in undergrad and graduate school, she created a program that matches first-gen graduates with students still in school, to help the former weather feelings of alienation, isolation, or simply the coded nature of academia.
"It wasn’t until my son went to college that I realized how much capital he was bringing with him because both of his parents not only are educated, but I'm an academic," she explains. "I was all, When you want to talk to your professor, make sure you do this, frame the email like this, and go to the office hours. Imagine being a student who has no one in your life giving you any of that kind of advice. That's leverage. So, for first-generation students, these mentors can be a kind of commensurate leverage but also provide a feeling that they're not alone in this."
Leeman sees Simmons' mentors as "stewards" who are free to work with their mentees in whatever way is best for each pair. Some of the mentors serve as guides to life on campus, she explains, while other students "bounce ideas off" their mentors if something comes up. Some students maintain very frequent contact with their mentors, while other students say, "I just like knowing you’re there if I need you. Check in with me once a month and that's fine."
Your workplace or school might not have a formal matching program that can connect you directly to someone from your background. However, you can take it upon yourself to do some digging. Many organizations have brief employee/faculty bios and summaries; increasing numbers of people include detailed information about themselves on personal websites; and others may include details on sites such as LinkedIn, where they state their interests, backgrounds, and extra-curricular activities. See someone who is involved with an area that impacts you? Drop them a line and go from there.
... But Don't Be Afraid To Consider A Mentor Who *Isn't* Like You
Ravi's immediate thought was to work harder — "study more, put in more hours, just get slaughtered," as she puts it — but that didn't make a difference.
"There are ways to work hard, and there are ways to show that you are working hard and have that visibility. I was definitely not getting that visibility," she explains. It wasn't until a VP engineer suggested that she transition into software instead of hardware that she realized what was holding her back.
"He said, 'You know, you're really smart, but hardware design is not necessarily a place where a woman can easily grow.' I was taken aback, thinking, What do you mean? I did all of this to do hardware design. But he pointed out a few examples in which every time I did a hardware design, my vendors — who were all male — would come in, take a look at it, and almost be ready to buy into my design, although they always need one more male engineer to confirm it," she explains. "He explained that it would be hard for me to grow in that space, where I would always need the validation of another male leader. The thing I love is that he made me aware of things I was oblivious to. I was busy working hard."
Ravi took his advice and admits that initially, she did feel like she was giving up something she liked, in exchange for a field she had "very little education in." But, she says the VP continued to back her up, assuring her, "You will figure it out. You're confident. You've got the intelligence. You will learn." Now, Ravi says she's done "wonders" in the software world and is proud of the technology that she has worked on, even though she didn't have the confidence to know that she could be a leader in a different field at the time.
In her experience, many women, particularly those brought up cultures that value modesty and not "bragging" about their achievements, can have a hard time making similar inroads. They may not put themselves forward for bigger projects, thinking that working themselves to the bone will earn them recognition. Or, they resist asking for help, as "making it look easy" is part of the culture — only for bosses to pile on more, to the point that those employees end up burned out, feeling used, and desperate to leave. Finding someone who understands these challenges can be a relief, she says, but she also urges people to seek out mentors who don't always relate to them, as opportunities for learning can make a big difference on both sides.
"At some point, I felt like there was a line in front of my office at Comcast of Asian employees. I had to spend time with some of them and nicely explain that we don't need to have the same background. If you want a safe place to just talk, I'm good. But if you really want other people to understand, you've got to seek mentors outside of our culture," she says. "There are people out there that understand the cultural differences. It's not everybody; I agree with that. But it's important that people who are not born in and brought up under that culture understand Asian people. We typically come across as 'just' hard workers who are intelligent and do a great job, but who somehow don't know how to raise up to leadership roles. In reality, it's not that they don’t know how; it's that we don't even know how to make the next step at times. It takes extra coaching to get there."
Don't Waste Their Time
Christie Lindor, a management consultant, blogger, and host of the podcast The MECE Muse Unplugged, says some of her best mentors may only have 10 minutes to spare in a six-month time period. She makes sure that each interaction with them is purposeful, meaningful, and gets straight to the point by giving them "crisp, elevator pitch type updates."
"I share something of value, and stay connected the way they like to interact," she explains. "You have to meet a mentor where they are at in a particular phase of their life."
Kim at SoFi adds that you can make things easier on your mentor by meeting when they can meet (not only when you feel like it), not flaking out, and being organized. "Write notes about the consultation, follow up, and be accountable with next steps," she advises. "This is not only a time for you to gain great advice from them, but to also show them how wonderful you are."
To that end, you should actually be mentor-able! It's not uncommon for people to ask for help, only to shoot down each and every suggestion that someone gives. (Think about all the times you may have done that to a friend, relative, or romantic partner, creating a frustrating interaction for both of you.) Maybe your mentor doesn't know or understand the whole situation, your limitations, or the limitations of your workplace. But if you asked for their advice, you're signaling that open to trying something new or hearing a different perspective. Try not to be defensive or shoot every suggestion down.
"I think sometimes mentees go into a relationship where they feel like they have to prove themselves to be worthy of the time. By acting that way, I think they're shooting themselves in the foot," Kim says. "You're coming in as a learner, as somebody who wants to gain wise advice. To come off like you already know everything may put the other person off," she continues. "Stay away from thinking you already have to be perfect. The time they're giving you is really precious, so use it wisely and go deeper on the questions."
Learn The Difference Between Mentorship And Sponsorship
"Mentorship is working with a person to ensure that they are on the right path, and that they understand their strengths and know how to amplify them. Sponsorship is about speaking about that person when they’re not in the room," Ravi says. "You are putting their name upfront for good opportunities or visibility, and you're propping them up every opportunity you have."
Because sponsorship involves someone putting themselves on the line more directly by vouching for you, these relationships require an even greater investment of time. Both Ravi and Kim say that the best way to find a sponsor is through a long-term mentor who knows you well and what you bring to the table.
"You start out being someone's mentee and build their confidence in you. If they really buy into your skills, your ability to execute on things and deliver, and if you have a vision, that [relationship] turns into sponsorship over time — but that’s a long road," Ravi continues. "It’s not something you can ask for; you need to earn it."
Give As You Take
"Sometimes people feel guilty working with a mentor because they are afraid they do not have anything to offer in return, but that is hardly the case," says Lindor. "I enjoy getting the perspectives of my mentees because they see things slightly differently and are a trusted source. Just being authentic in your interactions with your mentor goes a long way. Actively listening to when they may need another opinion or help is just as valuable."
She adds that she also loves getting thank-you messages or cards from mentees sharing the outcome of a recommendation she gave that they applied, so keep your mentor in the loop. You might not choose to apply every piece of advice they give, but if something works, let them know. Feedback about your relationship can be important to maintaining it.
"Mentors provide guidance based on their own educational background, experiences, and values, which may or may not be the same as yours," Lindor says. "I use situational awareness when it comes to using guidance from mentors. I always go with my gut. In some cases, I have applied recommendations a mentor gave me verbatim. Other times, I cherry pick elements from their guidance. I understand that I own my experience. I am accountable for my life and career. Mentors help me make more informed decisions."
Let The Relationship Run Its Course
"Knowing upfront that mentor relationships wax and wane is critical. Just like friends, mentors come in your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime," Lindor says. "You do not want to force or manufacturer mentoring relationships. I have learned to accept and embrace the fact that mentor relationship will organically evolve."
Kim adds that that evolution can happen for a number of reasons, from either side getting busy with other matters, personal or professional, that demand more of their attention, to simply realizing that your goals have changed. Instead of settling for a slow fade that feels part like ghosting, part like an awkward goodbye — have a grown-up conversation.
"This goes to back to setting expectations early on around what you need, when you need it, and what the goals are," she says. If you sense that things are getting stale, Kim suggests either taking things up a notch, or bringing it all the way down. "Schedule in check-ins to say how [the mentorship] is going for you, ask how it's going for them, share the progress you've made, and revisit the timeline. There usually is an end as people's careers grow and different phases of their life come into play. Those expectations or timelines may have to be reset."
If that does happen, don't think of it as a bad thing. You might lose one mentor — at least for the short-term — but you will ideally have gained a lot of knowledge.