UPDATED: See part two of this series here: “What to turn a mentor into a role model? Just be cool.”
At least once a week, I get a request with a familiar ring to it:
“I heard what you said about networking with people across companies. Right now, I’m in a weird place in my job, and I’m trying to figure out what’s next for me. It’s hard for me to see career progression for myself without talking with someone more senior. So I guess what I’m asking is… can you help me find a mentor?”
Let’s stop right here for a second and unpack this a little bit.
First off — love the initiative. As a highly ambitious person who’s always thinking about the next thing, I couldn’t agree with you more that it’s incredibly helpful to find someone “the next step up” to learn from.
That said, this whole concept of finding a mentor is riddled with trouble. Asking somebody to find you a mentor is like asking your friend to find you a spouse. Even if your friend does know lots of lovely, single people, it’s an incredibly tall order to expect them to deliver a permanent life companion to you on a silver platter.
In other words: Don’t ask for a mentor when you’re really just asking to be set up on a first date.
Like any meaningful relationship, mentorships are long-term, and loaded with mutual respect and benefits on both sides. They take time to cultivate and nurture. I can’t give anyone that over an email introduction. Honestly, I’m not even sure I can ever even give myself that. Maybe I’ll never have a mentor. But then again, maybe I don’t really need one. Here’s why.
The misconception about mentors
There’s something culturally “off” about the way we talk about mentorship. In some fantasy-land world in your head, you may be imagining an ideal role model — someone loved and respected who has already saved the world twice over, has all of the experience you want one day, and by the way, happens to be free on Thursdays at 10 a.m. for the next six months to meet for coffee and tell you all the secrets of their ways of life.
This person will take a liking to you immediately without knowing why (sort of like Albus Dumbledore and Harry Potter), and your instant charm will somehow compel them to give up some percent of their time just to make you better. They’ll tell you stories about their career trajectory with witty commentary and anecdotes that you’ll write about later in your book. They’ll take your phone calls after hard meetings and send you intriguing articles and content to make you smarter. They’ll bring you with them to meetings and introduce you to the people who will advance your career to the next level.
Sounds great, right? But here’s the thing. This is not reality.
Consider this: Would you give up an hour each week to advise and coach someone junior to you about how to do their job? Would you agree to meet someone from a different company or industry once a month in a one-sided relationship where simply give them life advice? Maybe you would. If so, you’re a better person than I am. But that kind of relationship isn’t mentorship: It’s highly sought-after executive or management coaching. And you can totally get that —as long as you’re willing to pay for it.
That said, unless you’re studying to be the next Zen Buddha Master, it’s incredibly unlikely that you really need a mentor or regular coach in this way. In all likelihood, you’re just looking for some good advice now. And maybe again in 3–6 months. So let’s lower the bar a bit about this elusive fairytale idea of mentorship and focus on what’s achievable: Introductions.
The fine art of introductions
As discussed, introductions are way cheaper and far easier to come by than the elusive mentor. So first things first, don’t ask for a mentor: Ask for an intro. But how can do that?
Step 1: Do your homework.
My least favorite type of request is when someone says this to me:
“Bethany, I’m trying to get better at [insert any skill here]. Do you know anyone who can talk with me?”
This is like telling me you’re trying to better understand the NYC restaurant scene and asking if there any good places in Manhattan you should check out. (The short answer is: Yes, there are 10,625 places you can try. But that’s probably not what you were looking for.)
If you’re going to ask somebody for their time, you better do you homework first to show that you’re actually committed to your own personal growth and development. Sorry to say this, but unless you’re paying a coach, nobody else will ever be more committed to your own growth trajectory than you are. So you have to own it.
Here’s a better way to frame a request:
“Bethany, this is my first time working in the consumer product space at a startup. I noticed that [insert name here] works at one of your companies and prior to that also used to have experience in [insert experience here]. Do you think she’d be open to speaking with me?”
You might be thinking, “But what if I don’t know any soecific people? Can’t you help me find who they might be?” In all likelihood, yes. But the more details, the better. Saying something like, “I’m looking to speak with other product leaders in the consumer space who have scaled organizations before” is much more helpful than, “I want to meet a great product leader to mentor me.” The other thing to keep in mind is that resources like LinkedIn and Twitter are incredibly valuable here. Doing a bit of homework in advance to find someone you already think they know will save you a lot of time (and make the intro much easier to facilitate).
Step 2: Pick a [specific] problem.
Great, you’ve identified the person (or type of person) that you’re hoping to meet. Next up, you need the request. The key here is to be specific. The problem you choose does not have to be the only thing you talk about, but it does need to be specific enough to inspire interest from the other person.
Let’s compare and contrast two common examples of emails I might receive from people looking for my time.
OPTION A: “I want to work in VC one day, and I really love USV and your companies. Can we talk about what your job is like?”
OPTION B: “I’m building a community of female coders for my college project, and I’m passionate about the idea of networks. One challenge we have is how we can manage asynchronous conversations among people in different geographies, and I read online that you manage a 3,400 person Slack channel. Do you have 15 minutes to share more about how this works?”
Which of these do you think I’m more likely to respond to?
You might be saying — but I can’t just pick one problem to ask somebody about. I want to talk to them about a zillion things and learn everything about them. To that I would say, have patience, grasshopper. Start with one super specific request first: That’s your wedge in. If the conversation is going well, you can ask a few other questions. Or better yet? Send an email follow-up several weeks after your initial conversation and share how things progressed. Then ask your second question.
Step 3: Write the intro request email for me.
After you’ve decided who you are targeting and what you’d like to talk with them about, the best thing you can do is write up a note that explains all of this and make the request over email.
Here’s a failsafe template to get you started:
“Hi [name]! As I mentioned, in my current role as [your job] at [your company], I’m spending a lot of time on [your current project]. One challenge I’m facing is [specific challenge you’re facing] and I’m hoping to connect with other people to hear how they have approached it. It looks like [person name] at [some other company] may have considered this during their work on [some project you already read about]. Do you think they would be open to speaking with me about it?”
You should assume I will forward this email directly to that person.
This is not a scary breach-of-trust thing; it’s just a time-saving tactic. And honestly, having your words make the request will guarantee I get it right.
From there on out, your email is off into the ether, and your specific, focused request is in the air. By the way, this isn’t a guarantee that whoever you want to meet will have time for you. And that’s okay too. You can revisit it later on or find somebody else who shares similar qualities and try again.
Taking the reins
Assuming you get an introduction to the person that you’re hoping to meet, the person who introduced you has fulfilled their duty. From there on out, it’s all on you to maintain the relationship and follow-through. I could write a whole other post on how to manage and nurture these relationships (and probably will) but this post is long enough for now. So I’ll leave you with this one final thought:
Please thank the person who introduced you. Tell them how it went.
In the past year, I facilitated 122 direct one-to-one email introductions. (I know this because I track them all. Like a crazy person.) Of those, I would estimate only 10% of people reported back to me about how it went. This makes me a little sad, but in the game of intros, it’s par for the course.
But after you have some all-star first meeting or phone call with someone you didn’t used to know, it really stands out when you take the time to report back on how it all went. Especially if you’re the kind of person who might be asking the same person for multiple introductions, it really helps to know you weren’t wasting their time and are in fact getting value from these meetings.
So there you have it: Stop asking for mentors, ask for intros. And use these three easy steps to make the best request possible. Happy intro’ing, everyone!
Want more? See part two of this series: “What to turn a role model into a mentor? Just be cool.”
(By the way, I’m hardly the first person to write about this topic. But I think it’s important enough to repeat. See other thoughts here, here, and here. First Round Capital has done some excellent work in this area too, which you can read about here.)