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 then I’d tell him to get a mentor. Because not having one was maybe my biggest career mistake.
Throughout my 20s I thought I’d get promoted and earn more money if I worked harder than everyone else. And I held on to this belief even as I watched other people who were less skilled than me advance. Then I discovered there was a game being played all around me.
But how was I supposed to know how to play this game, when no one talks about it? That’s where a mentor comes in. So I got two of them, and it changed everything. They taught me how to navigate the tricky world of office politics, and they told me exactly where I should focus my energy.
I did everything they said. And then opportunities started opening up for me and my career took off. Here’s what I learned a good mentor will do:
- Provides brutally honest feedback
- Pushes you out of your comfort zone
- Holds you accountable
- Knows what works, and what doesn’t
Don’t make the same mistake I did and try to do everything on your own. Because you can’t. Instead, get a mentor so you can get ahead. Here, I’ll show you how.
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. And when Christie came home he told his mother he wanted to be a politician. 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. Then Christie worked 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. When Christie ran for governor, Kean was the first to endorse him.
All Christie did was knock on the door and ask, and that’s all you really need to do, too. Here are 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, over-achievers, and people I admired. You’ll want to make sure they have the position, skill set, or experience you want.
It doesn’t matter how you find them. They can be where you work, in your professional network, even a friend of a friend. But it helps if you can meet with them face-to-face.
2. Email them
These days you don’t have to be all creepy and knock on their front door. I’ll even walk you through an email script you can use:
Subject: Quick question
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 operate in meetings. You’re charismatic and make decisions with confidence.
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 so I’d love your guidance and advice.
Make it easy for them to say yes. Don’t ask them to be your mentor. 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 meet you at your office. Then I’d like to meet every few months for a quick follow-up. Is that possible?
And if you don’t hear back in two weeks, send them a follow-up email by replying to the original email you sent:
Hi Jack, just floating this to the top of your inbox.
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, and let them know when you’ll reach out to schedule the next meeting.
2. Not preparing
You’ll waste everyone’s time if you’re not prepared when you meet, 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 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:
I took your advice about [my setback or challenge] and tried [you solution]. I got [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 without reaching out to people I admired, and asking them for help.
But if you want to really advance your career and your earning power you need mentors.