Even the greatest leaders got help when starting out.
The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “Where should you look for a mentor?” is written by KT Schmidt, chief human resource officer and general counsel for Digital River.
We like to think it’s all our own hard work that helps us succeed, but in my experience working in human resources, those who go furthest have plenty of help along the way. At any stage of your career, you should try to build a strong connection with a mentor—a more experienced professional in your field who’s willing to provide guidance and support as you navigate your own career path. Based on my experience, finding a mentor is less daunting than you might think.
Get in touch
Identify people who hold jobs you might want and have built reputations you admire. Once you find them, don’t agonize about what to do. Just write a quick email and introduce yourself, clearly and simply: “I’ve followed your career and admire your achievements. Would you have 15 minutes to talk with me about how you got where you are today?” Don’t expect a response from everyone, of course, but you might be surprised by how many people will be happy to talk with you.
Once you have their attention, how do you actually ask for mentorship? Open the door, tactfully, by asking whether they know anyone at their level who might be willing to mentor you. They may know someone you would be just as happy to have as your mentor—or they might just volunteer to take on the role themselves.
We have a tendency to hold ourselves back, believing that nobody we aspire to have as a mentor would want to speak with us. While this is a natural, humble instinct, many people in leadership positions are happy to pay forward the help they received at critical points in their own careers.
Start your search at work
Some companies provide structured mentorship programs. Because of internal hierarchies, however, it might be difficult to develop real trust and rapport with a mentor who knows your manager. You’ll want to be open about new career opportunities outside of the company, and that can be a fraught disclosure to someone in leadership at your own organization. You must also be open to sharing and exploring your own perceived weaknesses, which might be tricky within your own company.
But if established correctly, even intra-company programs can be safe spaces for true candor. The best mentors understand the relationship is more about promoting the growth of the person they’re working with than promoting the interests of the business. As long as you’re prudent, an official company mentorship program can do wonders for your career.
Alternatively, you can tap your coworkers for the inside scoop on who in the company would be a good mentor. If your peers know you well, they may be able to recommend someone who would be a good fit for you based on your personality and interests. Look to coworkers who seem to have cultivated the kinds of relationships inside the company you’re interested in.
Don’t look to your friends
It might be tempting to embark on a mentoring relationship with someone you consider a friend. You have a rapport; you trust each other—what could go wrong? But in my experience, mentorship and friendship aren’t always complementary, even if the friendship first formed in the office.
A friend might not feel comfortable saying “no” to mentorship or being candid about your weaknesses. On the other hand, a mentor who’s a friend might point out a perceived weakness in a way that could damage your friendship if not handled well. It’s probably better to look for mentorship elsewhere.
Don’t neglect old-school networks
Even today, there’s no better way to build relationships than old-fashioned face-to-face contact. I recommend seeking out clubs and organizations with a service mentality as a place to cultivate mentor relationships. Don’t limit yourself to your own industry, either. Community service organizations and nonprofits can lead you to mentors who might provide a broader perspective on your professional horizons.
Service organizations and larger nonprofits have board members and volunteers from all walks of life who could serve as mentors for specific areas of expertise or growth. Organizations like these tend to attract people with a strong service orientation, who might be more open to becoming a mentor. And they’ll get to know you at your best, united in a purpose you both believe in.
Give back to your mentor
Ideally, mentorship is a durable, long-lasting relationship from which both people grow. You might not know right now how you’ll be helpful to your mentor, but your success will provide ample opportunities to repay the kindness your mentor has shown you. More importantly, you’ll have the chance to pay it forward yourself.