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Want better mentorship? Be a better mentee.

The question I receive most often from schools, students, and entrepreneurs is about mentorship — will you be my mentor? — how do you recruit mentors? — how do you foster connections with alumni and students?

The answer requires addressing the right problem.

Great mentorship connections and outcomes are the responsibility of the mentee. Strong mentees do three things really well:

  1. Know your need.
  2. Build your social capital.
  3. Follow up, and follow up again.

Know your need.

What problem are you trying to solve? What are you stuck on? Asking to pick my brain is a sign you don’t have a good sense of your need. I know you want to get as much time as possible to ask questions, but you earn it one question at a time.

The people you want as mentors are super flipping busy. They don’t have time to sit down over coffee every week.

You have to make it easy for them to help you. Start by presenting a specific need and showing that you value their time (before and after).

Specificity starts with taking the time to identify the right problem to solve. Try to smallify your problem by identifying discrete obstacles. For example, fundraising is too big of a topic for general advice. Are you stuck on identifying the right funders? Need help with the pitch deck? Even then, those problems can be reduced to smaller obstacles.

Is your question clear enough and specific enough to be answerable in under five minutes? For example, if you want help with your pitch deck, a five minute request is to ask for an example pitch deck to learn from. A mentor familiar with pitch decks will know what to send you.

Build your social capital.

Social capital is a measure how well you can access the value of your network. Building this capital takes time and care.

You are not trying to simply connect with as many people as possible. A good network is built with genuine connection. Because it is not about who you know, but who will help you.

When you invest time in genuine connection, people are more likely to help and even connect you with other people who can help. Your most valuable connections are often made through introductions.

A simple way to build social capital is the Five Minute Favor. Take note of how you might be able to help people in your network. Then spend five minutes each day to act on your favor. You might repost a job opening for a friend’s company, you might write a recommendation for a colleague or vendor, or you might make an introduction between two people (remember to ask first).

Follow up.

A great way to build your social capital is through genuine follow up. The simplest and most important follow up is a thank you. But you can do far more to strengthen your network:

  1. Share an update. Send a short personal email (every couple months) to people who have helped you. Let them know what you are up to now and how you used their advice.
  2. High-five. Show support for accomplishments. This could be as simple as a tweet or a quick email recognizing their work.
  3. Be ready to give help. Know how you can give back to your network and look for ways to proactively help.

Questions or comments? What challenges do you face with giving or receiving mentorship? Share them below.

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