Aspiring young professionals sometimes become overly aggressive in seeking mentors. Last week, I received an email from someone I had never met asking if I would serve as her mentor. Despite being a mentor to many, I don’t recall anyone ever asking in such a direct, impersonal manner. The best mentoring relationships just happen. They’re not over orchestrated.
Over the past five years, I’ve written several posts about mentoring, including topics such as mentor etiquette and how to properly tap mentors. I was pleased to read similar advice yesterday from Shellye Archambeau, chief executive of MetricStream, a firm that helps companies meet compliance standards. In the Corner Office column of The New York Times, Ms. Archambeau says, “Throughout my career, I had a lot of mentors, and I just adopted them. What I found is that, especially if you’re young, when you go up to people and say, ‘Would you mind being my mentor?,’ their eyes widen. They literally step back. What they’re thinking about is the commitment and time involved if they say yes. And time is something they don’t have. So I would not ask them to be my mentor, but I would just start treating them like it. And that worked very well for me.”
Ms. Archambeau said it’s “really simple” to adopt a mentor. “Let’s say you interact with someone, and at the end of the conversation you just say: ‘I’ve got just a quick question for you. Any thoughts on how … ?’ It has to be quick, and it can’t be something big. And usually people will throw out an idea. I know this sounds odd, but I find that a lot of people don’t take the advice they’re given. But I would do what they suggested, and then follow up with them and say: ‘Hey, thanks so much. Here’s what I did. It worked out great.’ Now what happens? They feel pretty good about giving you the advice because they had a positive impact. So when I reach out to them again, they’re more likely to actually respond to my e-mail or my call. And then they might be more willing to have coffee with me.”
I can think of dozens of mentors I’ve adopted over the years, and vice versa. This approach works far better than a formal relationship where one or both parties may have impractical expectations.