"Are you my mentor?" Here's how to stop asking that question and find someone who can actually help you.
By Ellen Chisa
I meet someone for coffee before work most days. This week I have four coffees: a good friend, a “mentee,” a former colleague and an acquaintance that I’d like to get to know better
One of the topics that’s come up in my conversations lately is “What is mentoring?”
Felicia and I chatted about the danger of assuming someone is your mentor because they’re older. Alison asked me how to approach her relationship with her mentor. I asked Stacy-Marie “how much time do you spend asking for advice vs. giving it?”
Officially, I don’t have a mentor. Or a mentee. Instead, I’ve developed some solid relationships that I can learn from. I figured this process out via trial and error. If you’re sitting around thinking, “I need a mentor,” try this first.
1. Figure Out What You Want to Learn
Don’t worry about finding a mentor. Worry about what you want to learn.
- Do you want to get better at a specific skill?
- Do you want to make a transition to another field?
- Do you want to move cities?
It’s important to figure out what you want to learn, not what you want to get. For example, you do not “learn” a promotion. If you want a promotion — why? What extra responsibilities would you have? Don’t forget about wanting a promotion, but figure out what you could learn that would help get you there.
There are different levels of granularity here. You might be in the initial phase of something — “So I want to become a Product Manager?” and you might be looking at a specific skill “how can I get better at keeping a meeting on track?”
Keep in mind that no one else can solve an existential crisis for you. A bad question would be: “I’m in Management Consulting and I’m unhappy, should I be a Product Manager?” I don’t know. No one will get to know you well enough in an hour to figure that out. Write down what makes you unhappy about Management consulting, so you can find out if that happens in PM. Write down all the fields you’re considering, to try to find some overlap.
Regardless of what you decide you want to learn, write it down for yourself. It’ll help you remember what you’re looking for. If you’re struggling with this step, Popforms released a “mid-year evaluation tool.” It walks you through figuring out some goals.
2. Figure Out Who Will Have the Right Perspective
This doesn’t need to happen immediately. Sometimes it’ll take a while before you find the right person to help with your questions. Do your research and start to see who’s work keeps coming up.
Don’t just pick the most visible person. I used to try to meet whoever sounded most impressive. That’s a bad strategy. Impressive people get lots of requests for meetings. They’re visible, and they get asked the same basic questions over and over. Meeting with someone impressive and then asking them the same thing will not make you memorable. It won’t help you later in your career.
Also, pick someone who knows about your question. Lots of people reach out to me to ask: "Does it matter if I don’t have an engineering degree and want to be a PM?"
I have an engineering degree. I can tell you, “Well it doesn’t matter to me,” but I’m not going to be able to provide the same nuanced perspective that someone like Bo will. Finding the right person is important.
3. Ask Them to Have Coffee (or Tea, or Lunch)
Remember: You don’t need to ask someone to be your mentor. You just want to start learning.
When I first moved to Seattle, I was trying to decide if I wanted to matriculate to HBS or not. I wasn’t sure if it would help me if I wanted to continue my career in technical leadership. I wasn’t actively looking for help, but I kept my eyes open.
I first met Kate at a startup weekend, where I was impressed with the advice she gave our team. I read a bunch of her blog, and realized we had a lot in common. She’d blogged about considering an MBA several years before, but clearly decided not to get one. She didn’t blog about her decision process, and I was curious. I sent her an email explaining my situation.
I’d like to get your thoughts on why you ended up not deciding to pursue an MBA, because I’ve been admitted to a program and would like some opinions on what to do. Would you be willing to have coffee with me sometime to discuss it?
I wasn’t looking for a mentor. I just asked her for one coffee to help me make the decision. It worked out: She was the right person, and it was the right time. Since then, Kate has been a supporter of me throughout my career. She’s helped me negotiate job offers, and given me opportunities I wouldn’t have found on my own. Never once have I said, “Are you my mentor?”
When setting something up, be sensitive to the person’s schedule. See if you can figure out their preferences. Before I met Felicia, she’d blogged saying she preferred exercise meetings to coffee meetings. I asked her if I could join her for one of her workouts. She was the one who decided we could have breakfast because it would be more conducive to talking. You can even offer to bring coffee to them at their office!
4. Take Responsibility for the Conversation
People say this about managerial 1-1 meetings, but it’s even more true when you ask to coffee with someone. You’ve asked for the conversation, and you should be prepared. Don’t under estimate that. If you’re unprepared, no one will want to make introductions for you.
Don’t assume that the person knows everything about you. Re-summarize your background to help set the tone for the conversation. Then set expectations for them, and what you’d like to learn.
This could be generic, “and I’m hoping to hear a bit more about your experience transitioning from a large company to a startup.” This works well for someone you already knew, or someone who is closer to a peer. It allows for a more meandering conversation.
Still, there’s nothing better than having a good list of questions. It shows that thought went into the process, and asking good questions is hard. Plus, they’re a good thing to go back to whenever there’s a lull in the conversation. Questions that stump me are the most memorable.
I’d suggest doing a mix of both. Summarize your background again, and explain that you’ve prepared a list. Once you ask a question, let the conversation meander. If you don’t get to all of the questions, that’s okay (as long as it’s okay with you!) but at least you know you have them.
5. Stay in Touch
Send a thank-you note. Ideally, do it promptly (same week), but better late than never.
The thank you note is a great time to include a reminder for anything you discussed. I often make offers without remembering them, so the reminder helps. It can be as simple as “thank you so much for offering to introduce me to X.” If you have a question, you can ask it: “I wrote down the name of the author you recommended, but she has 6 books. Is there one you think I should start with?”
If possible, include your takeaway from the conversation. It helps show that the conversation was valuable, and you took the time to reflect on it.
In March, Hunter agreed to talk to me about my HBS decision. The conversation helped me realize something, so I told him in my thank you note: First, thanks. You helped me make a decision. I mentioned it on my blog, but admitting that I can’t do Kickstarter & what I want to do at the same time was a big step.
Then, loop back around when something good happens. If you’ve talked to people to get advice in a job search, send a happy note. “I really appreciated our discussion, and I’m happy to say I found a new role at New Company!” Let people who helped you celebrate your wins, too.
Of course, if you enjoyed talking to the person, stay in touch between then, too! Follow them on Twitter and reply. Read their blog and comment. Share their work.
6. Return the Favor
This is the best part of having coffee, and not about “being a mentor.” Things don’t necessarily need to go one way.
I’ve learned great things from people who asked me for advice.
Joshua and I stated talking because he was looking to get into Product Management, and attended a talk that I did. He also went through the long form PM class at General Assembly. Now that I’m teaching the class, he’s given me tons of advice about what did/didn’t work for him — and I hope my class is better as a result!
Simone also asked me to chat about being a PM. Afterwards, she got the chance to talk with Ken Norton. She emailed me and asked if I had any questions for him — and then asked him! She also read an entire book that I’d mentioned, and sent me summary notes.
They’ve both been very thoughtful about my time, and very clearly valued our relationship. I hope I’ve helped them, but I’ve definitely learned from them.
Have either of them said “Are you my mentor?” — No. Will I help them as much as I can? — Yes.
Interested in learning more about mentoring? There's no better place than our fall "How To" Conference.
About the guest blogger: Ellen Chisa is beginning her MBA at Harvard Business School this Fall. Previously, she was a Product Manager at Kickstarter and Trustee of the NYC Awesome Foundation. In her free time she writes and plays pinball. You can follow her on Twitter.