You never know where one might appear.
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, “How can you convince someone to be your mentor?” is written by Nader Mikhail, CEO and founder of Elementum.
Trying to convince someone to be your mentor is the wrong approach. It’s like asking how to convince someone to be your best friend. Instead, you should focus your time and effort on your work, and the right mentor will be drawn to your passion.
First of all, you need to be focused on what you want to accomplish. A mentor is not someone who can pave a path for you. If you want to get the most out of a mentor, you need to have a clear idea of your goals and how your mentor can help you accomplish them. For me, this means being specific in my requests. If I ask a general question, I will get a general answer. So instead of asking about what your mentor has learned in their careers, ask them how they would approach a certain problem you are facing. They will naturally incorporate their own relevant experiences into the answer.
By posing a specific question, you are demonstrating three things: First, that you can clearly visualize your successful end state. Second, that you can distinguish between things that pertain to this end state and things that don’t. And third, that you have a sense of your desired path, but need guidance to navigate it.
The second thing you need to harness is a sense of self-motivation and commitment. In Sydney Finkelstein’s book Superbosses, there’s a whole chapter on what he calls “Masters and Apprentices.” While a master teaches a trade, it is the responsibility of the apprentice to attain and hone basic skills.
As an apprentice, you need to do two things: First, educate yourself—the more you know about your field, the more insightful your questions will be, and the easier it will be for you to connect with experts. And second, develop good working habits by mirroring the behaviors that you see in your desired mentor; by emulating their actions, you can learn through routine which habits bring success. This also puts you on their schedule, giving you more opportunities to interact. A mentor will choose their mentee based on potential. And potential shines more brightly when it’s fueled by research and observational learning.
Next, make this relationship about results, not feelings—mentors are for guidance, not validation. You should prefer honest criticism over pats on the back. If you get good at learning from criticism without taking it personally, you’ll grow with or without a mentor.
So, how do you find a mentor when convincing someone isn’t an option? You strive to be the best at what you do without one. If your mentor is also in the business of success, they’ll respect your journey and will be happy to share a few tips from further along the path.
But what if someone you want doesn’t choose you? What if they’re just so busy that they can’t spare a minute for a protégé? No big deal. Not every mentorship needs to be a lifelong saga. It can happen in the span of one meeting, over a shared lunch, or in an elevator. Any moment you overlap with an expert is a potential lesson, so you need to be ready at all times for coaching opportunities.
Lastly, remember that mentorship doesn’t end as you gain mastery in your craft. There’s always someone to learn from, and perhaps most importantly, someone who can learn from you. So as your career progresses, don’t forget to keep your eyes open for those earlier in their journeys who need a little help navigating their path.