Numerous studies and anecdotal evidence confirm the benefits of having a mentor to advise and encourage us in the workplace. Although mentors and sponsors are distinct, see my last article, the advice below generally applies to both; so for this purpose I am not differentiating between the two. Recently, quite a few people have been asking me about how to find a mentor. Here are some tips:
(1) Figure out what you want. Are you looking for a comforting presence to tell you that you are not alone? Could you benefit from hard-nosed advice on how to handle office politics? Perhaps you are looking for someone to give you the opportunity of a lifetime. Once you figure out the kind of mentor you want, you can look around for an appropriate match.
(2) Do excellent work. If you are looking for a mentor within your firm, it is particularly important that they see you as a smart up-and-comer. Busy successful people are usually happy to share their wisdom, as long as they see the recipient as having high potential.
(3) Prioritize that person. If you are working for multiple partners, and you would like one in particular to become your mentor, make extra effort to be responsive and do spectacular work for that person. Leaders are often looking for people they can groom for success. Make sure that you are the obvious choice.
(4) Ask HR. If your firm doesn’t have a mentoring program, it could still be worthwhile to ask your human resources or marketing departments. They could be considering starting such a program or have some ideas about which partners might be open to mentoring.
(5) Check for outside resources. Attorneys looking to start their own firms might look into bar association resources or SCORE.org, a nonprofit association affiliated with the U.S. Small Business Administration, which matches entrepreneurs with mentors.
(6) The mentor doesn’t have to be in your practice area. Of course, this depends on your reason for seeking a mentor, but a lot of life and business lessons transfer well between fields. Keep an open mind.
(7) Mentoring doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement. For you to benefit from the wisdom of another professional certainly does not require any sort of formal relationship. There could be several people from whom you informally seek out advice a couple times a year, or maybe you take someone to lunch just one time to get advice on a particular problem. There is a lot of value in creating an ongoing relationship with someone, but it is also important to be open and flexible in creating what you need.
(8) There are many ways to ask. Some people ask a prospective mentor outright and clearly define what they want, for example, having coffee together once every couple months. Others feel the situation out gradually, initially asking for advice on a specific topic. If that meeting goes well, they then ask permission to follow up at some designated interval. Both approaches can work beautifully.
(9) Find a point of common interest or common values. If you are trying to develop a relationship with a potential mentor but don’t know her well, try doing some research. Ask around in the office; Google her; look at her LinkedIn profile; follow her on Twitter; etc. Find out hobbies, food preferences, family situation, hometown, or any other trivia that may help you to connect. Human beings tend to like and trust those whom they see as similar to themselves; therefore, identifying commonalities early on can help you to deepen the relationship more quickly.
(10) Take recommended actions. I have spoken to a lot of mentors, and their number one grievance about mentoring is people who do not take the recommended actions and yet return to the mentor with the same complaint. This doesn’t mean that you have to do exactly what the mentor suggests. It’s perfectly fine with most mentors if you choose an alternative path to the one she suggested. However, taking no action at all and still asking for advice on the same subject just makes the mentor feel like you are wasting her time.
(11) Give back. As in any relationship, it’s appreciated if you can reciprocate in some way. If your mentor shares with you about his personal or professional projects, try to pass along information or connections that might help. Even if your attempts don’t turn out to be particularly useful, it still shows that you are on his side and looking for ways to contribute; and that is always welcome. If the mentor is active in social media, there are numerous opportunities to show support. For example, you could write a nice endorsement on LinkedIn or retweet his tweets.
Now for the elephant in the room. I find that when women are proactively seeking mentors, they usually look to other women to fill this role. While this is understandable for many reasons, it ultimately puts women lawyers at a disadvantage since the majority of partners (and leaders in almost every organization) are men. Women don’t want to be misperceived as cultivating inappropriate relationships with men, or even worse, get hit on by a mentor. Men have a similar dilemma. They may want to help women succeed, but they don’t want to have anyone question their motives, worry about a jealous wife, or develop feelings for an attractive young colleague. The reality is that some people do pursue inappropriate relationships at work, and this makes legitimate professional relationships more difficult. I have spoken to many women who chose to avoid this minefield entirely; it just seems easier. However, this is a missed opportunity. It is absolutely possible for women to create wonderful, long-lasting professional relationships with men. After all, by the time we reach adulthood, women usually have a pretty good sense of when men are interested in them romantically. So, trust your gut; set appropriate boundaries; and go get the advice and support you need from both men and women.