Want a Mentor? Ask Yourself These Questions First.

Many times in my career, I have felt like I was out of my depth. I have wished there was someone older or smarter than I am to guide me toward ideal solutions in my work. Sometimes, I have doubts about how I’m managing my own career. Guidance around the different options available to me might make a sizable impact on my future possibilities. At Atomic, I’ve heard similar desires for a mentoring relationship from folks I manage. Young software designers, for example, would love to have a more experienced director to help them through tough interactions, client situations, or complex problems. Inexperienced developers like the guidance of someone with gray hair to make sure they are making the right choices.

Mentoring Pros and Cons

A relationship with a more experienced professional can be rewarding. One of the benefits of working at a close-knit company like Atomic is that you can build several of these relationships over a career. A mentoring relationship can also be a fantastic source of gained efficiency in professional and personal growth.

However, starting a mentoring relationship can be challenging. That’s because experienced folks are in high demand at work and have little free time to give. From a business standpoint, the experienced professional’s time and attention are extremely valuable. The prospect of developing a new colleague might not be attractive to everyone.

Critical Questions for Developing a Mentoring Relationship

Here are a few areas of inquiry I have used in preparation to get a mentoring relationship started:

  1. Think critically about why you think you need a mentor. What are the specific situations where you’ve needed help in the past? What feedback have you received from others about your performance? Write up your thoughts on these subjects and be prepared to speak about them to your mentor candidate.
  2. What should the mentor expect to get out of the relationship? What can you offer in exchange for their time, expertise, and energy? Is there a way you can free them up to focus on your needs? Make a proposal that shows empathy and results in a win/win situation for both parties.
  3. Distill your professional goals over the next five years. Where do you want to go with your career? Who do you want to be? Are there people in your org you’d like to emulate?
  4. What skills, habits, and abilities can you develop that will feed into these professional goals? If you want to be a senior engineer on a product team, what are you lacking right now? If there is a job description for that role, do a gap analysis on what you have now and what you need to acquire that role.
  5. In what ways could a mentor spur your growth in these areas?

Many people looking for a mentor don’t bother going through a process to define what they need and how a mentor might be able to help. They have a vague existential dread that they aren’t who they need to be and can’t become who they need to be to progress. To get a great mentor, you have to do better than worry and fret over your lack of knowledge and experience. Come to the table with a well-thought-out proposal, and you’ll differentiate yourself from your peers.

When You Don’t Need a Mentor

You might encounter another possibility as you ponder the five topics above. You might discover that, by breaking your goals and skills to be acquired into smaller experiments or achievements that you can tackle on your own, you don’t need a mentor. I have been pleasantly surprised time after time by colleagues who have come to me for mentorship and have discovered as we talked that they were all they needed to progress. Sometimes, they needed a more experienced person to tell them that they had it in them to do what they needed to do.

A close friend of mine in my twenties (whom I viewed as an excellent mentor) once shocked me by telling me that he didn’t think he was a mentor at all. He confessed he had no mentorship connections at all. He said, “I’m a cheerleader. People come to me for wisdom and I ask questions. They always have the answers. Then I encourage them to do what they already know how to do.”

You may discover that you have all you need within yourself. All you are looking for is permission and encouragement. If you discover you don’t, then by following the five areas of inquiry above, you have a plan for engagement.