As a small business owner, it can be very appealing to find a mentor. We all would love to have someone show us the ropes, help us avoid pitfalls, and introduce us to our next big-ticket client with an easy handshake. However, the ways we are often recommended to go about finding a mentor can come across as needy or strained. Going to networking events and expecting to walk out with a brand-new best friend is an unrealistic plan. Networking events are incredibly important, but the time you need to put in to find a mentor only begins there.
If you want your mentorship to develop authentically, you’ll need to give it time. Here’s my rule of thumb: if you have to ask, “will you be my mentor?” you are rushing it. If, instead, you look at your relationship with your trusted advisor, and think, “Huh, I guess this person is my mentor now,” you have probably done it correctly. Recognize that you don’t need the official title “mentor” or “mentee” to get the benefits of a mentoring relationship in business. Here’s how to get started.
Find Places To Be a Great Listener At First
Networking events, showing up a couple minutes early to meetings, and a wide variety of other strategies can get you facetime with your potential mentors. However, do what you can to listen before you jump in. After all, the things you need in order to make strong connections are mostly gained through listening to what matters to your potential mentors. Get comfortable being a person who is learning ways of speaking, priorities, and topics that are common; by the time you are drawn into the conversation organically, you’ll have plenty to say. It’s just a smart plan to avoid jumping in early and saying something that is deaf to the tone that these professionals typically use.
Find Opportunities to be of Service
One of the best ways to become memorable to your potential mentors is to notice when they have a need. Think about it: your favorite local business owner mentions needing someone to run a booth at a conference, or someone to check people in at a networking event, or literally anything. Being the person who volunteers – and then does a stellar job – can be a great first introduction. It creates an implied “I owe you” as well, so that if you reintroduce yourself at a later date as the person who did him a favor, it will be very casual and easy to ask for a favor yourself.
Join Volunteer Efforts With Those Who Could Be Great Mentors
Speaking of volunteering, most professional groups have needs, be it board members, someone to take notes, or someone to pick up the snacks. In whatever organization that also has your mentor in it, notice what he or she signs up for and see if there’s an opportunity to serve alongside them. This is a chance for prolonged chitchat that can lead to an opening of connections between you. You don’t have to do this all the time, but it’s a smart way to get something useful done for your professional organization while also deepening your personal network.
Be Honest When Requesting One-on-Ones
So you’ve gotten to know a few potential mentors, perhaps breaking through some surface-level conversations into really knowing each other. When you ask to meet with them one-on-one, you are making a more overt statement that you want to get to know each other. One of the best ways to respect a potential mentor’s time is to make the one-on-one meeting actually be about something. If you just ask to “pick your brain” or “get to know each other,” the potential mentor may wonder just how long this will take, and whether you have an ulterior motive, like wanting to push hard for a job at their company or find a way to undercut them and get their clients. Instead, have specific things you want: do you want to know more about how to join a national organization they are part of? Do you want advice on a particularly thorny problem you are running into with logistics? Do you want to hear about how they broke into the business and got their first clients? Try to find a completely honest and specific reason to meet, because they will know more about how long this will take and be more likely to agree to the meeting if it isn’t super vague.
Ask For Concrete Things, Not General Advice
Once you are in the meeting, make sure that you maintain your specific requests. Rather than asking for advice about getting clients, show that you’ve done your research and wonder if they can introduce you to just one person (preferably one person that won’t end up making you steal business from this potential mentor!). Rather than asking for someone to be your mentor, figure out what you’d want from a mentor, and ask for that instead. Ask, for instance, if you can get them to read over a quick but important document you have to write and offer their feedback on how to refine it. Asking for a small but real favor can help you forge a bond without seeming like you are out of touch and wanting hours of free labor from them.
Being Warm and Considerate Can Go A Long Way
As you gain mentoring relationships, remember to do warm and considerate things without going over the top. Send a Happy Birthday message via text or email, but don’t send an elaborate gift. Ask about something specific when you run into them, “Hello! How are you? Did that big soccer competition for your kids go well?” to always leave room for further deepening of the relationship. Much like a friendship, being casual but warm can really go a long way, and you’ll find that these relationships deepen over time without you deliberately forcing the relationship to do that.
No matter how much you try to find a mentor, you’ll often discover, years later, that the mentors that were most influential sprung up without you deliberately seeking them out. Work to be a good, thoughtful colleague who listens well, and the mentorships will happen organically.