How And Why to Find Mentors As A Young Woman
Like many ambitious young women, I devoured Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In in my first few months of entering the working world after college. While many women have expressed frustration that her book doesn’t address some of the structural problems holding women back in the workplace, Sandberg nonetheless doles out some nuggets of gold.
What stuck with me the most was her lesson on mentorship — specifically how women can benefit from receiving mentorship and from being a mentor, throughout their careers.
While mentorship is a trendy buzzword today, it can be difficult to understand how to actually find and cultivate a relationship with a mentor when you are starting your career, perhaps even more so for young women. In fact, despite growing up in a very nurturing environment surrounded by wonderful mentors, I found it bewildering to approach this phenomenon in the “real world” after college and high school. While I understood the benefits of a great mentor relationship — and even what that looked like — I kept coming back to the same questions, to the point that I asked two separate coaches about it.
Specifically, these were:
- How do I pick someone who will be a good mentor for me?
- Do I have to formalize the relationship (that awkward ask!) or is it something that should build out naturally?
- How many mentors should I have? And how often should I talk to them?
I will add that I haven’t figured all this out 100% yet. But by following a combination of advice and intuition, I’ve started a formula that is working well and bringing me closer to finding the support I need to grow in my field. Before I get into that, I want to address why I thought finding mentors was important in the first place.
Why do people need mentors anyway?
Raise your hand if you are someone who occasionally struggles to ask for help. I’m only keeping mine down right now because I need it to type.
If so, it can feel easier to avoid the whole mentor issue, but bear with me. A great mentor relationship can actually help you break through this challenge by providing advice and support before you even knew you needed it, and when you need it most. However, they do not necessarily work with you, so you can ask for advice without worrying about its impact on your job.
So what is a mentor? A mentor is someone who teaches or gives advice to someone younger and less experienced. Often you will look for mentors in your industry; for example, a young entrepreneur may look to a seasoned corporate CEO for strategic support. However, I’d argue there is room for mentorship in an area of interest, whether it’s a sport, a craft, or any other hobby. It might even be easier to get started finding a mentor for activities you do for fun than for work; the pressure is lower and you can experiment to learn what works and what doesn’t.
In my experience, mentors can fulfill a number of roles in helping you improve and advance. They may even fill more than one of these roles. These include:
- Inspiration: You may be lucky enough to find a mentor who currently occupies a role you may one day aspire to hold. This is an unparalleled learning opportunity if they are willing to be open and honest about their own mistakes and learnings.
- Education: Many of my first (and closest) mentors came from my university days. While mentors that look to teach you things that you might not be encountering yet do not have to be educators by profession, they play a similar role in your individual growth.
- Cheerleader: Sheryl Sandberg encourages mentors to go out of their way to support mentees by uplifting their work and connecting them to opportunities. A mentor might act like a coach and proactively push you toward new opportunities that you hadn’t seen before.
Importantly, a mentor is usually not your friend or family member, because it can be difficult to be frank when there are close emotional ties. This does not mean you cannot have a close personal relationship with your mentor; in fact, you should. But your friends and family play a different role in your support network and it is advisable not to mix them up too much if you have a tendency to take feedback from loved ones personally (like me).
How do you find a mentor?
Finding mentors is a trial-and-error process. You will almost certainly mess something up along the way at least once, so it is important to acknowledge that possibility from the outset and not get too fixated on specific outcomes.
Personally, my biggest challenge in finding mentors has been to secure long-lasting non-male mentorship. Occasionally, this same dilemma has also meant needing to be careful with boundaries and intuition to ensure would-be mentors mean well and do not have hidden intentions. Luckily, I’ve been able to steer clear of awkward situations so far, but there have been a few near misses.
Here are the steps I have followed — and am currently following — to secure strong mentorship in my field as a young woman.
1. Write down your list of ideal mentors.
I got this piece of advice from one of my own mentors, who happens to be a successful executive coach and therefore gives this kind of advice to a lot of people! There are two pieces of this step that help break down the process of finding a mentor.
First, writing things down can often help clarify your thoughts and give you a benchmark to return to. Second, it can help you visualize your priorities for reaching out to prospective mentors based on your relationship with them, their expertise, and your aspirations. In an ideal world, some of the people you write down will actually already be your mentors, even if informally.
I recommend making three lists, almost like applying to college: Secure, Stretch, and Aspirational mentors. You do not need to reach out to all of them today. I encourage you not to. The idea here is to identify who you already have in your network, who you might be able to add relatively easily, and who your absolute dream mentor would be. I have no shame in saying I dream of someday being mentored by Kris Tompkins or Janet Yellen. Dream big.
Once you have your lists, start building relationships with those closest to you. Experiment with ways to approach people within your stretch list. Everything you learn in building these first relationships will help you get closer to your Janet Yellen, whoever that may be for you.
2. Don’t get fixated on specific people. Focus on skills, expertise, and fit.
This might seem like the antithesis of my previous statement, but it is complementary. The search for mentorship, while likely to be fruitful, will occasionally be dotted with rejection. And since asking for support requires vulnerability, it can often feel like a personal slight when someone says no to being your mentor.
It is critical to remember that people say no for any number of reasons, and you are likely reaching out to someone very busy. Just because you are not a fit for them as a mentee right now does not mean you are not a fit for someone else, or that you might not be a fit later for them down the line. So if you don’t connect immediately with someone from your stretch list, take a breather, then get back into it. Some of the best connections will come from unexpected places, but only if you keep putting yourself out there.
You won’t get there unless you reach out and ask. Cold emails and LinkedIn messages are not nearly as bad as they seem. I’ve started more than a few projects with people whom I connected with over LinkedIn. Just don’t fixate on what the outcome will be; reach out with sincerity and I can guarantee you will receive gracious responses, whether yes or no.
3. Be clear about boundaries from the start.
Sheryl Sandberg very clearly states that women should not directly ask someone to be their mentor. I tend to disagree to an extent. If it feels awkward to ask the blunt question, “will you be my mentor?” you don’t have to. I still recommend trying it at least once with someone close to you so you can gauge their reaction and understand how to phrase it better next time.
You don’t necessarily have to explicitly ask the question, but you do need to be clear about what you hope to get out of the relationship and provide your potential mentor time to consider what they can offer. Remember, these people are often quite busy and will usually appreciate that you are clear about how much of their time you might need and how you will communicate.
It can be as simple as: “would you be willing to do an hour-long call with me once a quarter to discuss XX?” or “would you feel comfortable if I asked you occasional questions via Whatsapp or do you prefer email?” If you are clear and direct about what you are looking for, you make it easy for them to consider how mentoring you fits into their existing commitments so they can make a decision. Then give them some time to think about it before expecting a decisive answer.
4. Mentorship is fun for the mentor, too.
One of the issues I struggle with when seeking mentorship (and I’ve heard similar feedback from other young women especially) is feeling that I have nothing to contribute to the relationship. After all, this person has years of experience, lots of brilliant people around them, and is very busy. What are they doing talking to me once a quarter about my little startup?
There is an easy way to break out of this fallacy: mentor someone yourself. Sandberg says no one is too young to find a mentee, so that includes you! Your mentee can be anyone younger or slightly less experienced than you who you connect with closely and want to support more. When you find the right person, you will notice that mentoring gives you energy and satisfaction, as well as a renewed excitement for your field. You will probably even learn something from your mentee.
Now keep that in mind when you start your search for a mentor. People will become your mentors because they want to mentor you. They are excited about your potential, interested in learning from you, and want to give back in their field. It’s a long-term investment. Just remember to pay it back when you reach a position where you can help other young people coming up behind you!
In all honesty, this guide is probably useful to both men and women. However, I don’t think women talk about this subject nearly as much, nor stretch as much for mentorship, and are therefore left out of many opportunities to learn and grow. This includes me. Recognizing this issue is the first step to fixing it.
Deliberately seeking out and asking for mentorship is scary and requires significant vulnerability and honesty with oneself. As a young woman who used to work in a few male-dominated fields, I know it can be intimidating and frustrating to find mentors who understand certain aspects of growing in our careers. I am still working to add more non-male mentors to my personal Board of Directors. I hope I can also be helpful to younger women along the way, including through articles like this one!
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