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

Kate Matsudaira (@KateMats) from PopForms nailed it:

“[Mentors] don’t have an hour a week to just go over general career questions with you. They are admirable and valuable mentors because they have a lot going on.
So I use my mentors’ time really carefully. I only come to them when I have a specific situation that I know they have expert insight on.
That specificity is where the value of mentorship comes in. You don’t want to only have one person to go to for every question.

Specificity comes from knowing your need and then, as a problem solver, identifying the right person to help answer it — including how you ask for help (hint: stop asking for coffee).

To find the right person (or multiple people) to ask for help, you need a good network.

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.

As 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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