How to Successfully Ask Someone to Be Your Mentor

Why most people don't ask someone to be their mentor.

Posted Aug 21, 2020

Amy Hirschi/Unsplash
Don't ask someone to be your mentor. Let the relationship develop organically.
Source: Amy Hirschi/Unsplash

It is no secret that those who are mentored make more money, get more promotions, are more productive, experience lower levels of burnout, and higher degrees of company loyalty. It turns out that most people know they need a mentor in order to optimize their success, but few actually have one (or several). A recent study out of Olivet Nazarene University revealed that 76 percent of people understood the need and benefits of having a mentor, yet only 37 percent actually had one.

So, if having a mentor is so beneficial, why don’t most people have one? Most individuals are likely too intimidated to ask someone to be their mentor. Conversely, when asked, potential mentors might feel they are too busy to take on the time-consuming task of mentorship.

You need to walk a fine line. How would you approach someone to be your mentor without appearing as if you are stalking them or asking them to take on yet another responsibility? Turns out, you don’t ask. The “M” word shouldn’t even come up in the initial conversation. If you approach someone and ask them to mentor you, you are essentially asking them to take on another obligation that they likely don’t have time for. 

But there is hope. Relationships are at the core of mentorship so developing them is paramount. Most mentoring relationships grow organically and over time. Time, effort, and patience are critical if quality mentoring relationships are to flourish.

Below are a few ways to ask someone you respect for guidance, without actually saying the word "mentor." Ask them for guidance about something very specific. For example, do you want them to review a manuscript you’ve written, or suggest a person you should speak with who has a particular specialty? By making it contextual, the potential mentor is much more likely to agree to a simple request. These small requests are not a huge time sink, and as a result, you are much more likely to get a positive response. Also be sure to thank your mentor for their guidance and follow up showcasing the results of their efforts. If they reviewed a paper you wrote, send them the link once it’s published. If the connection they made for you was impactful, let them know what difference it made for you and how it helped.

Approach someone you heard speak.

Did you attend a conference or seminar and hear a great speaker? Very often, the speakers stay for part of the conference. Take advantage of the opportunity and approach them and mention something you liked about their talk. It doesn’t need to be immediately after the talk as they are likely flocked with people then. I’ve actually approached speakers on the coffee line and even the hotel gym.

Tell the speaker who you are and follow up with an email afterward. Don’t forget to follow them and actively engage with them on social media as well. I once gave a talk and an audience member showed me the illustrative notes she took of my talk. I was so impressed. We stayed in touch and I ultimately took her with me to a few talks. I connected her with people in my network and she even did some research with me.

Email them.

The same approach which is done in person can also be done via email. You might email a potential mentor with the following query: “I read your book/heard your podcast interview on [...] and was especially interested in your point on [...]. I am working on developing a similar program and was hoping to speak with you for 15 minutes about how I could improve [...].” Again, having the request be very specific is paramount to increasing the probability a potential mentor will say yes to your request.

Engage with them on social media.

If there are people you respect both within and outside your field, be sure to follow and engage with them on social media. If they have an interesting post, engage with it by writing a thoughtful comment. Be careful, you don’t want to overdo it or else you’ll appear to be stalking them; once every few weeks should be sufficient.

Ask for an introduction.

Is there someone you feel could offer you valuable insight? If you don’t know them directly is there someone in your network who does? Check their papers, see who they co-authored with, and don’t forget to see who they are connected with on social media. Ask the mutual connection to make an introduction and explain what insight you are seeking.

I was once invited to a conference and was debating whether it was worth attending. I looked at the conference website for past speakers and I realized that a colleague of mine knows one of the speakers. I explained to my coworker my dilemma and asked for an introduction. That e-introduction led to a phone call. At my new contact’s recommendation, I attended the conference and wrote to him afterward to thank him for encouraging me to go. We are now in regular communication, via email, and I have a new valuable person in my network.

Have starter sentences ready.

You may never know when you might meet a potential mentor. It could be in an elevator, a plane, or on the line for the restroom. You should have some starter sentences ready. These are brief words you already have prepared and can pull up when you need to introduce yourself.

When you meet your new contact, think of some connection between their work and yours. It’s best to come up with issues that transcend industries. It might be remote, but it is possible to find a common ground. For example, exchange tips on how to mentor teams or retain employees. Have your starter sentences ready so you are not fishing for ways to make the connection.

Being called a mentor is a title of great prestige and needs to be earned. You are not a mentor until your mentee calls you one. Your mentee shouldn’t use the “M” word until it’s earned.