Whether you are still in college or have recently landed an entry-level position in your field, you have probably been told that you need a mentor, an experienced, powerful person in your industry who can guide you throughout your career.
Some professors often describe mentorship in a traditional, if rigid, way. You meet someone at an event, you get their card, a day or two later you send them an email and set up a coffee date. At said coffee date, you wow them with your smarts and experience. Soon, they’re introducing you to their other powerful friends and you’re zipping up the corporate ladder/masthead/tenure track.
But how do you find a mentor? How do you convince an important figure in your industry to invest a significant amount of their already limited time in you?
Here is some expert advice from a few women who know a thing or two about networking and mentorship.
Why do you need a mentor?
“I think that everyone needs people that are older than them that have gone through similar experiences to be able to point them in the right direction,” says Lauren Wesley Wilson. Wilson is the founder and chief networking officer of the ColorComm Network, an organization that connects women of color who work in communications.
If you want to be successful and influential, Wilson says that you definitely need a mentor. “If you want to flat line – stay at your job, make $50,000 a year for eight years – then no, you don’t need to network. But if you want to get promoted, if you want to move up, if you want to be successful, then you absolutely need mentors,” she says.
So, how do you find a potential mentor?
One great way to connect with powerful and experienced women in your field is to find networking groups like ColorComm. Launched after a luncheon in 2011, it’s an organization that connects women who have mid-, senior- and executive-level communications positions.
“I was working in an environment where there weren’t a lot of women of color at the executive level and I wanted to see more faces and be able to think that one day I could achieve this position, but I had to see examples that looked like me,” said Wilson.
Sherry Sims of Black Women’s Career Network began her organization because of similar frustrations. She was looking for “someone who looked like me in my industry” and in 2008, she created a LinkedIn page for Black women to connect about career challenges.
Sims wanted to provide access to women who can work with each other. “The challenges we face in the workplace as African-American women need to be talked about because it’s been happening for years,” says Sims who is also a career coach and a speaker.
That LinkedIn page grew into the Black Women’s Career Network, a platform for Black women to “meet, connect, share experiences, resources, career advice, mentor others to grow professionally and learn how to deal with challenges and complexities within your career while striving for upward career mobility.”
BWCN does that in several different ways including, meet-ups, online webinars, career coaching and its annual national conference, which takes place in Cincinnati this August.
Professional conferences can also be a great way to go. For example, seasoned journalists attend the National Association for Black Journalists’ annual conference expecting to network with younger journalists who are seeking a mentorship.
NABJ communications consultant and member, Aprill Turner, suggests that prospective mentees be strategic about which events they attend at a convention, that way they can meet potential mentors who share similar interests.
“Every industry is a little different. I think NABJ, just based off of our student program, is seen as a student-friendly place,” she says.
If you’re a student looking for a networking opportunity, Turner suggests that you see if professional organizations in your field have affiliate groups for college students, such as the Public Relations Student Society of America.
Sometimes, the perfect mentor is right down the hall – or in your call log. If you already work in your field, you may be able to connect with co-workers or higher-ups who can provide you valuable advice that will help you move forward.
This is someone who sees you often and knows the ins and outs of your specific place of business. That in-house mentor could directly help you by putting in a good word for you when the opportunity arises, taking on the role of sponsor.
“A sponsor is a spokesperson or cheerleader who will talk you up for the next promotion or project. A mentor can give you guidance,” says Sims. “It’s almost like being a movie star. Your talent coach tells you what to do. Your agent helps you to get roles.”
Older friends who work in your industry can also serve as de facto mentors, able to advise you on more sensitive topics, should the need arise. Sims says that person will probably be flattered that you asked for their advice, and that they could also become a sponsor, if you operate in the same networking environment.
“Not to get all scriptural, but there is a Biblical application of this: ‘…be a Barnabus. Pursue a Paul and train a Timothy,’” says Turner. A Barnabus would be a wise, older friend, Paul is a biblical figure who was “very much a mentor” and to “train a Timothy,” you would make sure you “reach back to someone who is a few years younger than you and do the same thing.”
“Those different levels are important: to have a more seasoned mentor, to have someone who kind of walks alongside you and also have someone that you are training up and mentoring are definitely all important aspects of mentorships,” Turner continues.
You can also look to professors for mentorship (after all, they know your work very well because they both taught and graded you), but that can prove to be difficult post-grad.
“It takes one person to keep the connection going. Stay in contact, send emails. No response? Then there is nothing that you can do about that,” says Sims. She suggests that mentees invite professors to events and find mutual interests to share. Does you mentor NEED to be a black woman? Getting advice from an established professional who “looks like them” is important to many Black women, because they want to learn from someone who shares a similar background and may have faced some of the same career challenges.
However, many companies and industries lack racial and gender diversity at the senior and executive levels.
Sims says the key is to find people (hence, the reason for her network), but thinks that you may be able to find a mentor that isn’t a Black woman who “gets it and gets you.” “Stay open to that, as well,” she says.
How do you get them to be your mentor?
“There’s an art to it. I think that people go to conventions for the first time and they’re nervous and it’s not formulaic. It’s not written anywhere,” says Turner, who thinks it is important to apply emotional intelligence when engaging in small talk with potential mentors. Paying attention to nonverbal cues, understanding when someone wants to engage and when they want you to back off – it all matters.
But she does find that professionals attending the NABJ conference expect for young people to approach them about mentorships. “They understand that innately, part of their role is to be a resource to young people and be a person they can talk to and ask questions,” says Turner.
Wilson, who once spent a year trying to land a coffee meeting with an executive, only to discover that they had little in common, suggests that going the coffee date route may not be the best tactic.
“Mentorship is an organic relationship building and there are many people who I’ve called my mentors without asking them to be and I told them that they were,” says Wilson. Attending meet-ups and industry functions, chatting with potential mentors and finding common ground are better ways to reach your goal.
A certain amount of persistence is key here. “This is a time that people need to be chased,” said Wilson. Email them at a decent hour, (no midnight messages, because those are both unprofessional and often get lost in the early-morning shuffle) reminding them who you are and where you met. Keep those messages short and snappy to give them a greater chance of being read.
Mentees should also avoid the “whatever time works best for you” trap. It might appear to be the more flexible and considerate thing to do, but it actually places the onus of planning your meet-up on your potential mentor. “If you want a meeting or you want a relationship, you need to request a date and time. Often, I get requests that are so open-ended that I’ve moved on,” says Wilson.
What if nothing you are trying is working?
“Networking is not always traditional. Sometimes you have to think outside of the box to establish a relationship,” says Sims who has developed several key relationships through sites like Twitter and LinkedIn.
“Sometimes it’s hard to find someone locally and meet face-to-face,” says Sims. If you can find someone who is willing to continue an email chain with you and offer advice over the phone, you can stay connected and get the guidance that you need.
Be persistent. It is not on the mentor to keep the relationship going, but it is on the mentee. If they never answer your emails, it just might not be a good fit. Many people have multiple mentors who can help them in varying ways.
If you find that mentorship truly doesn’t fit your personality or isn’t necessary for your career goals, you can try getting inspiration from friends and sign up for business-related newsletters. However, ruling out mentorship altogether is not advised.
“Success is not a secret. Someone has done what you want to do. You have to find them and really almost emulate it,” says Turner. “It won’t go exactly for you the same way especially being women and women of color, but definitely I can look at what someone I admire has done and go that way.”