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.
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.
I find, during these moments of engagement, that we share both public and private space where my intern-mentee feels comfortable and safe. In this environment, we usually talk about a broad range of topics, with the intern often broaching subjects that would never be mentioned with a parent. I become the cool godmother in a way.
I'm sure I have helped some of my intern-mentees make clear decisions about everything from choosing a major in college to resisting the temptation of engaging in premarital sex before they were ready. I have had countless mothers and fathers reach out to me after these spaces of intimate engagement to thank me for helping build confidence in their children and guide them to good purpose.
I have figured out a way to make mentoring work for me and the person who enters into that relationship with me. But never have I begun such a relationship after being prompted by that question, "Will you be my mentor?"
When I do get the big ask — and it happens with regularity — I very directly say no, and then I give the following recommendations:
* Don't ask the question. It's too much to ask at the beginning of a relationship.
* Do know a lot about the person you would like to mentor you.
* If you know anyone who can make the introduction for you, by all means ask that person to facilitate it. I cannot emphasize enough the value of how you meet someone. Having a respected person as a bridge to meeting your potential mentor is a huge bonus.
* Do reach out in person or via email or regular mail to request an informational interview. Explain in your most charming and succinct manner why you want to meet the person — meaning the qualities you admire or the field in which the person has excelled (not because you want the person to mentor you). You can say that you are building your career, and you want to learn about that person's life and career because you admire what the person has accomplished so far.
* When you speak, ask smart, well-informed questions.
* Follow up with a handwritten note expressing your gratitude for the meeting. Ask if it's OK for you to reach out again in the future.
* When you do, make the overture valuable. Be prepared with a list of questions or topics you would like to discuss with this person. Remember that he or she is probably busy, so you want to make the moment count.
* If you honor the person's time by making the conversation engaging and valuable for both of you, chances are you will have just planted the seeds for building a rapport. Very naturally, a mentor-mentee relationship may begin.
One of my greatest joys is knowing that there are dozens of people out there whose lives I have touched in some significant way. Yes, I have served as their unofficial mentor. While that word has never crossed our lips face-to-face, the experience has benefited us both.
So by all means, find a mentor. Reap the wisdom of someone with more experience than you. Just be sure to ease into the relationship. Your strategic gracefulness can yield amazing results!
Harriette Cole is the president of Harriette Cole Media and a contributing editor to The Root. Follow her on Twitter.