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How to Show Your Mentor You Won’t Be a Total Waste of Time

December 11, 2016, 5:00 PM UTC
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Ezra Bailey—Getty Images

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 Joy Tan, president of global media and communications at Huawei Technologies.

I recently spoke with a friend about finding his way while working at a large, somewhat bureaucratic organization.

“Having a mentor changed the whole nature of the job,” he said. “It made everything easier. It made me more enthusiastic about work. It helped me understand levels of things going on behind the scenes that I couldn’t possibility have known about otherwise. It was simply the best professional experience I’ve ever had.”

Being mentored can make the difference between having a job that’s just average, and one that’s a stepping stone for future success. So how do you convince somebody to share their time and hard-won knowledge with you?

Start with first principles. When you propose that someone be your mentor, you’re effectively asking them to make an investment in your future. They’re going to want see a return on that investment. You must convince them that they’ll get one.

Most importantly, be passionate about your work. That alone may get you noticed. You may not have much of a track record yet, but your attitude will speak volumes. If your mentor sees you as a possible rising star, your success will reflect positively on them, increasing the odds that they will invest time in you.

Another factor to consider is whether to approach someone who has a similar background to yours. Particularly in the U.S., where companies are focused on cultivating workforce diversity, offering your mentor a chance to coach a protégé who doesn’t look like them could be seen as a plus for the mentor.

Next, look for shared interests. This may sound obvious, but even a small bit of common ground can help break the ice. Does the person play tennis, or like Chinese art, or have a degree in economics? What do they read? If you do find something in common, make sure to be ready to discuss this with them when you reach out.


Manipulative? More like strategic. Remember, you’re competing with everyone else for this person’s attention. A tiny opening may be all you need.

After that, your job is to make the mentoring relationship explicit. When the time comes to ask for their guidance, use the word “mentor.” Rejection is always a possibility, so it can be tempting to mumble, “Gee, I’d love to pick your brain some time,” but that’s the wrong approach. Both you and your mentor should understand that there will be an enhanced quality to your interactions. Otherwise, you risk using the person as a sounding board, or a shoulder to cry on when you’ve had a bad day. That’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s not mentorship.

Make the relationship goal-oriented. Set targets and seek your mentor’s advice on how to achieve them. Maybe you’d like to apprentice yourself to a top speechwriter. Suggest working with that person to write three speeches within the next year. It’s okay if your plans don’t completely pan out. The point is to have a goal that imposes a time limit and stipulates some type of quantifiable output.

Always keep in mind that mentors are less like friends, and more like teachers or advisors. Your relationships with them don’t have to be transactional or cold. But you still should ask yourself, “What is my mentor getting out of this?”

If the answer isn’t clear, reassess what you want from the arrangement and what you bring to the table. You should be able to state why the arrangement benefits not just you, but the mentor whose counsel you seek and the organization you both work for.