Someone recently asked me what piece of advice I’d give my 22-year-old self. First, I’d tell him to wear clothes that fit, and second I’d tell him to get a mentor.
Not having a mentor was my biggest career mistake.
You see, throughout my 20s I thought I’d get promoted and earn more money if I just worked harder than everyone else.
And I held on to that belief, even as I watched other people less skilled than me keep advancing. Eventually, I discovered that there was a game being played all around me.
Now, how was I supposed to know about this game, and how to play it, when no one ever talks about it?
That’s where a mentor comes in. So, I got two of them, and it was a game changer. They taught me how to navigate the tricky world of office politics, and they told me exactly where to focus my energy.
I did everything they said, opportunities started opening up for me, and my career took off. Here’s what I learned a good mentor will do for you:
- Mentors provide brutally honest feedback
- Mentors push you out of your comfort zone
- Mentors hold you accountable
- And mentors know what works, and what doesn’t
Don’t make the same mistake I did, trying to do everything on your own, because you can’t. Instead, get a mentor, and get ahead.
How to get a mentor
According to the New Yorker, when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was 14, he heard George Kean, a member of the New Jersey state legislature, speak at his junior high school. When Christie came home he told his mother he wanted to be a politician, so she drove him over to Kean’s house and made him knock on the door.
“Sir, I heard you speak. I think I want to get into politics. How do I do it?”
“I’m going up to speak in Bergen county tonight. Why don’t you come with me and see if you like it?”
That single road trip lead to Kean becoming Christie’s mentor. Christie started working on Kean’s gubernatorial campaigns, and in return Kean wrote the letter of recommendation for Christie when he was nominated by George W. Bush to be the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. And when Christie ran for governor, Kean was the first to endorse him.
All Christie did was knock on the door and ask. That’s all you really need to do, too. Knock on the door and ask. Here’s some pointers to keep in mind.
1. Brainstorm a list of 5-10 potential mentors
My best mentors were about five years ahead of me in my career, they were over-achievers, and they were people I admired. You want to make sure they have the position, skill set, or experience that you want.
It doesn’t matter how you find them. They might be at work, in your professional network, or even a friend of a friend. But it does help if you can meet with them face-to-face.
2. Email them
These days you don’t have to be all creepy and go knock on their front door. Here, let me walk you through the exact email script to use:
Subject: Quick question
First, you want to compliment them. You’re contacting this person because you know they do something particularly well, so tell them what that is.
I wanted to drop you a quick note because I like the way you handle yourself in meetings. You’re charismatic, and always make decisions with confidence.
Second, tell them what you want. They’re busy, so get to the point by explaining who you are, and what you want.
Right now I’m an analyst, and I know that’s where you started your career. I’m interested in following a career path similar to yours, and would appreciate any guidance or advice.
Lastly, make it easy for them to say yes. Don’t ask them to be your mentor because that’s too formal, and they don’t want or need another commitment. Let them know how much of their time you’re after, and that you’ll do all the work.
If you’re interested, I’d love to get coffee, or will come to your office. Then, I’d like to meet every few months for a quick follow-up. Is that possible?
If you don’t hear back in two weeks, send them a follow-up email by simply replying to the original email you sent:
Hi Bob, just floating this to the top of your inbox.
I had to follow-up with one of my mentors twice before getting a response. Remember, they’re busy.
Three mistakes to avoid
Once you’ve agreed to an initial meeting make sure you avoid these mistakes when you’re building the relationship:
1. Being annoying
When the relationship is new the temptation is to email them questions every day expecting one-day turnarounds. You’re not the center of their universe, they are, so keep it casual. Meet with them every few months like you said you would, and during that meeting let them know when you’ll be reaching out to schedule the next one.
2. Not preparing
You’ll waste everyone’s time if you’re not prepared when you get together, so make sure you bring a list of questions, problems, or topics you want to cover. A good framework to follow: What you achieved since you last met, what setbacks or challenges you’re currently facing, and what new approaches you might take.
When you receive guidance or advice make sure you implement it, and then close the loop with a quick email like this:
I took your advice about [my setback or challenge] and tried [your solution]. I got [this result]. Just wanted to share that with you.
They’ll appreciate knowing you took action, and how it turned out.
This is the part where I tell you I wouldn’t be where I am today without reaching out to people I admired, and asking them for help. Sure, reading books and websites about getting ahead in your career is a great place to start. They can get you pretty far. But if you really want to advance your career, and your earning power, you need a mentor.