Need a Mentor? Don't Ask

The best way to find an adviser is first to develop a relationship that is mutually beneficial.

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One of the most important relationships a person can have is with an engaged, knowledgeable and generous mentor. And yet for many people, creating that relationship can be one of the most difficult acts to execute. Why?

Most people approach potential mentors the wrong way. Here's how the request often plays out:

You have identified someone whom you do not know at all or really well, and you are so excited about that person that you want to soak up all the knowledge she or he has in order to improve your life.

This person may be someone you have admired from afar for a long time. You may meet this person -- whom you now idolize -- thanks to a chance encounter, and you find yourself tongue-tied about what to say. Or perhaps you research the person and send a letter or a formal email making your request.

There are countless scenarios leading to "the big ask." My concern is that the big ask --- "Will you be my mentor?" -- usually comes at the very beginning of a not-yet-established relationship. It's kind of like meeting someone you find attractive and asking, "Will you marry me?" before you have ever gone out on a date or even had a real conversation.

Asking the question is something I do not recommend -- pretty much ever. It's definitely too big a commitment to request before a bond has been established. And generally, people who take mentoring seriously will balk (silently or aloud) at the request because they fear that they may not have the time to mentor -- or interest in mentoring -- someone they don't yet know.

That said, I must admit that I am a big fan of mentoring. Indeed, there are many people I have mentored over the years. Usually there is at least one young person each year that I take under my wing. The way I do it is through internships.

Because my schedule is super packed and includes a husband and a young child, I don't have a lot of time outside the workday (which is often longer than eight hours) to spend with other people. So I invite one or more young people each year to intern with me.

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During that time, I teach the person about the various things I do in my work. I invite my intern to shadow me throughout my day. We go to events together. We spend hours talking about his or her dreams and mine. I share strategies I have used to navigate sticky situations, both professional and personal.

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