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Choosing Mentors for Your Advisory Board

Of all the resources professionals have at their disposal, mentors are arguably one of the most helpful. Articles, books, and trial and error can be great teachers when you’re navigating your career, but nothing can replace advice from people who have navigated similar challenges.  But how do we find a mentor? What qualities should we look for? How do we take the first step?

During my undergraduate studies, I was fortunate to attend Sports Car Club of America Autocross events as a driver and a volunteer corner worker, where I found unlikely mentorship from national championship winning drivers. During these weekends, the drivers taught me a mnemonic device that has stuck with me: “Aim for success. AIM = Awareness + Intention + Measurement.” I think developing our AIM is what we seek mentors to facilitate.

 

So why is it important to have more than one mentor?

As Glenn Tullman writes in his article “Don’t Choose a Mentor” on Forbes.com, “You don’t want to get locked into one mindset just because that is how your mentor always approached things.” With just one mentor, our AIM becomes too narrow. Tullman continues, “Instead of choosing a single mentor, develop a network of advisors who are of mixed demographics, in varied industries and at different stages of their careers. Traditionally you would turn to one mentor for all your questions; a network allows you to gather strong advice from the person best suited to the task at hand.”

 

Where can you find new mentors?

The Broader Engagement program facilitated a Mentor-Protégé relationship but building a network of mentors means taking the first step to identify new mentors in your life. While its important to seek out some senior, accomplished individuals as mentors, Tullman suggests that a mentor need not fit this criteria to be effective as a member of your advisory board. Here are five more types of professionals that Tullman suggests as good mentor candidates:

  1. Colleagues
  2. Peers at different companies
  3. Your employees
  4. People who have struggled and persevered
  5. Visionaries

 

What qualities should you look for in a mentor?

When choosing a mentor, it is important to look for qualities beyond a resume or CV. While someone can be very accomplished in their field or even a good mentor to others, it doesn’t mean they will necessarily be the right fit for you. As Larry Ambrose writes in “Choosing a Mentor,” it is important to choose a mentor that understands your needs and is interested in your success. Remember that you are building a relationship, so it’s important to also find someone you can communicate well with.

 

Taking the First Steps

Start with you:

  • Before you start seeking out mentors, identify your own short or long term goals for your future. They don’t have to all be career goals either – maybe you want a mentor for running to help you finally get from a 5k to 10k. How could a mentor help you achieve these goals?
  • Make a list of your strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to know where you believe you need help and also what you can bring to the mentor relationship.
  • Identify what you want out of a mentor relationship. Do you need career advice? Do you want help finding professional development resources?
  • Identify the most important qualities to you in looking for a particular mentor.  Think about qualifications but also about personality. For example, if you are motivated more by regimented routines and tough love, you might choose a run coach that takes more of a ‘drill sergeant’ approach as opposed to one with a more relaxed schedule and positive reinforcement. Or maybe you would like something in between. Either way, it’s about knowing what you respond well with so that you can determine if someone will be a good fit for you as a mentor.

Do your homework:

  • Write down your reasons for choosing a particular person as a candidate mentor. What criteria that you identified in (1) does this person fit?
  • What about their role or background makes them a good fit for you?
  • For professional career mentors, is there any information available online or at your company about their current work or interests? For example, what have they recently published work on or what projects are they working on? Prepare for your meeting.

Build the lines of communication:

  • You wouldn’t email someone blindly asking to be their friend, so don’t do it with a candidate mentor either.
  • If you don’t know the candidate mentor yet but would like to get to know more about them or their role, ask for a 15-minute in-person meeting. Be open to listening to what they are working on or what their career path has been. Even if you do know the person, you may be seeking more out of the relationship than before, e.g., if you are asking a colleague to also be a mentor. A series of short initial meetings where you start talking more about career paths, backgrounds, etc. can help set the stage for a future mentor conversation.
  • Keep the relationship aspect in mind. How are your interactions with this person? Are they awkward and stilted or natural and free-flowing? What can you contribute to one another?

Define the Mentor Relationship:

  • After you have built a professional relationship with a candidate mentor, it’s a lot less intimidating or awkward to ask that person to be your mentor.
  • Always ask in person, if possible.
  • Be upfront about the type of advice or mentorship you are seeking from them. What are your goals and what are you looking to get out of the relationship?
  • Be willing to work hard. Show your candidate mentor that you are seeking advice and guidance from them but not asking or expecting them to do your work for you.
  • Why them? Mention the background, experience, or qualities that you think would make them a good mentor for you.
  • Why you? What can you offer to the mentor? Remember, the mentor relationship is a two-way street.
  • Explain how much time and attention you think you will need. It shows that you know what you would like guidance on and that you are appreciative and considerate of their time and effort.

Express gratitude:

  • Be sure to thank your mentor for their time.
  • Don’t take it personally if someone turns you down. It’s better that they’re honest with you upfront than commit to something that they can’t deliver on. Thank them for the time they already spent with you.

How do I start the conversation?

Don’t get too hung up on the language! Formally defining a mentor relationship can be a useful tool in helping you and your mentor define goals and measure progress. However, if the thought of formally using the mentor label intimidates you, try to find something that feels natural to you.

As a conversation starter,

  • “Would you be my mentor?” is both vague and probably sounds unnatural.

Instead, try:

  • “I was wondering if you would mentor me on public speaking.”
  • “I am looking to switch career paths from mathematics into computer science and I know you did that early on in your career. I was wondering if you would be willing to mentor me about making a similar transition. Your advice would be extremely valuable.”
  • “I’m looking for some guidance on joining the astronomy project at our company.”
  • “I have some ideas about improving the signal processing simulation. Can I run them by you and get your advice?”

In all of these cases, make sure to follow up these statements with more specifics as discussed in (4) above.

 

Choosing Mentors for your Advisory Board was written by Dr. Stephen Wood and Melissa Abdelbaky.