How Millennials Can Find a Great Mentor

Millennials LOVE mentors. A matter of fact, Workplacetrends.com did a survey entitled "The Millennial Leadership Study" and discovered 53% of them said that "mentoring" would be the most effective form of leadership training. Having managed millennials myself (over 100 of them in my career to date), I can confirm that I've been asked: "where do I find a mentor?" a number of times before. The short answer is "You can find them anywhere," since mentors are just people, and people are everywhere; but that's not really what they want to know. They want to know how to find someone who has demonstrated success in a field/skill that they're interested in and is willing to take them under their wing and teach them the ropes. That's a much different question, and as there isn’t a mentor-matchmaking app out there (yet) this is what I say when I'm asked this question:

You're asking the wrong question.

I hear this question most often during performance reviews (which I prefer to call formal coaching sessions) when they're inquiring about how they can progress to the next level in their career. Companies have even started proactively offering mentorship programs to accommodate this frequent request, but, in my opinion, that's not how effective mentorship relationships work. You can't point at someone and say "Ben, show Ashley the ropes." That's training. Even if you were to get a little more intelligent about it and say, "Ashley is interested in Product Management, and Ben is our best Product Manager, let's pair them up" it STILL will likely fail. Even those that volunteer to be your mentor might be poor choices because relevant knowledge and willingness are only two of the requirements of a mentor, and I'd argue they aren't even the most important ones. Nobody can pick your mentor for you.

If you want to develop a valuable and productive mentorship relationship, you need to start by asking yourself these questions:

1) Why am I looking for a mentor? If your answer to this question is "to get ahead in my career" not only are you going to have a hard time finding a mentor, but you're not going to get very much out of it. Mentors want to know that their time and effort is going to go towards more than just your next promotion. Even if it seems a game of semantics, "to get ahead in my career" is vastly different than "Shorten the learning curve associated with obtaining my career goals by learning best practices from an expert." Why? Because you're shifting the focus of your request away from you and towards what your mentor has to offer. Both intentions will likely result in the same outcome, but the latter one will demonstrate that you're committed to listening and learning what your chosen mentor has to offer. 

2) What am I hoping to learn from a mentor? If you're a blank page and just looking for the fastest way to do the job of the person who is currently in the role you want to be in, you're going to find a mentor who just shares whatever they feel like sharing at a given moment. Be specific! "I'm looking for a mentor because I'm weak with conflict resolution, and I know it's an important part of leadership." or "I'm hopelessly disorganized and don't know how I'd keep an entire team organized." 

These realizations about yourself will help you hone in on the type of mentor you need because you can start consciously looking for individuals you respect with those specific skills that you desire.

3) How best do I learn? It's no secret to our generation that everybody learns differently. By this point in your career, you should know how best you learn things. Are you a visual learner ("Draw me a picture,")  auditory learner ("Say that again for me,"), verbal learner ("So what you're saying is...,") or logical learner ("I can relate that to this case study..."). Once you know what your learning style is, you can tell your eventual mentor what it is so that they can present situations and information to you in a way you can best absorb it. 

4) Exactly how much time/effort am I willing to put into the mentoring relationship? This one is critical because -and listen closely to this- YOU are responsible for maintaining a mentoring relationship. Don't expect them to reach out to you and say "Hey! I have an hour before work on Friday that I was just DYING to give away." It doesn't work like that. You need to reach out to them, preferably with a loose agenda, to schedule conversations, meetings, networking events, etc. So, if you're not willing to be flexible with their availability, initiate discussions, or inconvenience yourself in any way to accommodate the relationship, you're not ready for a mentor. 

Only after you've answered all of these questions and are clear about the why you want a mentor, what you want from them, how you're prepared to learn from them, and how much time and energy you're willing to invest in the relationship, are you ready to ask "Where do I find a mentor?" Happily, as I mentioned above, the answer to that question is pretty straight because there are a million viable answers. 

My favorite recommendations are:

- Friends of family, friends of friends "Hey Cory, I see you know John from Company XYZ. Would you mind teeing up a warm introduction so I can land an informational interview with him?"

- Meetup Groups, Networking Events. Seriously, there has never been a better time in history for networking. There is a site entirely dedicated to getting people with the same interests in the same room together. Join groups and attend these meetings

- Alumni associations. Cornell has a really strong alumni network that is a no-brainer for networking and seeking out mentors. I'm not sure that all schools do (my small undergrad college shut it's doors shortly after my class walked down the aisle, so there isn't much of a network left there) but if you have an alumni network -high school alumni networks count too!- tap into it!

Volunteer for causes that mean something to you. These causes don't even have to be associated with what you're looking to learn or the career you're pursuing, what matters here is that you'll come in contact with people who have something very profound in common with you: a passion for your chosen volunteer effort. It's a great conversation starter and ensures that there are some commonalities to build a relationship upon.

- Church. There is hardly a group of people more willing to build a relationship and lend a helping hand than church communities.

- Incubators, Accelerators, and Colocation Facilities. Here in Nashville, we have the Entrepreneur Center, which is amazing. Even if you're not a paid member you can attend certain networking events, but if you pay as little as $50 a month, you get access to hundreds of successful mentors who volunteer their time to help young leaders develop their careers. Ask around and see if there is anything similar in your area.

The one place I DON'T recommend looking for mentors: Work.

There are entirely too many things that can go wrong with a mentor at work. Here are just a couple:

  • They could get paranoid that you're trying to take their job.
  • You could learn something about them that causes you to lose respect for them or puts you in a position of having to keep a secret (or they perhaps about you) and then you have to continue to work with them.
  • For a mentoring relationship to be truly effective, you need to be honest with them, and you run the risk of telling them things that are personal; you then have to trust them not to tell anyone else.
  • You don't get the benefit of seeing how people outside of your organization do things, think about things and approach challenges.
  • You don't increase your professional network by much. Having a mentor outside of your company gives you access to a completely new network while choosing a mentor at work means many of the people in their network already overlap with your own.

Once you find a mentor (Congrats in advance) I have three remaining recommendations:

1) Don't stop at one! If you have the bandwidth, collect mentors, there's no need to stop at one. Different people have different strengths, so why not keep learning from talented people?

2) Show your gratitude regularly. If people are volunteering their time, break out the old pen and scribe them a thank you note, send them an email, buy them their favorite treat, or just tell them how sincerely grateful you are for them and their efforts.

3) Give back! Once you've got the skills and the job that you were striving for, take on your own mentee and keep the goodwill going!

Where else are great places to find mentors? Any other recommendations on where NOT to look for mentors? Have a super special way to demonstrate gratitude to a mentor? Share it below in the comments section.

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