I am a success today because I had a friend who believed in me, and I didn’t have the heart to let him down.  – Abraham Lincoln

Sometimes I marvel at my good fortune.  Between Thursday and Friday of last week, I received hours of counsel on how to propose work to a potential client from two very different perspectives.  The advice was not from a paid consultant; on the contrary, both conversations were with peer mentors.  From two different coasts, backgrounds, and consulting perspectives, they provided varied and valuable insight regarding how to approach this vexing opportunity.  Just a few hours before the first call, I’d felt adrift and anxious about how to respond; after the second call, I felt energized and equipped with a thoughtful, well-informed game plan.

Over the past few years, I’ve recognized my personal need for more significant mentorship.  Perhaps it is being a sole proprietor of a business, a raging extrovert in search of camaraderie in what could otherwise be a lonely existence. Maybe it is a corollary of Mark Twain’s famous quote: as I age, I’m astounded at how much smarter those around me seem to have become.  Or maybe it is more reflexive, the youngest of seven who had some excellent mentor siblings.  Whatever the reason, I have very little interest in ‘going it alone’ these days. I prefer to turn to peers and senior members of my profession to build a superior consultancy, and to personal relationships to ensure I’m living my life aligned with my ultimate mission.

We all know the benefits of mentoring: for both parties, it enhances our thinking, creates clarity and perspective, expands our network, and provides us with more visibility – all of which could lead to better career opportunities or more fulfilling life goals.   What a deal!  So…why does finding a mentor seem so difficult?  Nod if any of the following describe you:

  • Your work environment does not provide exposure or time to leverage potential mentors;
  • Mentoring has become such a formal process within your work environment (matching systems, structured meeting requirements, and report-outs) that it doesn’t seem worth it
  • There appears to be a multiple on the number of people seeking mentorship to those willing to give it, and it’s hard to find someone who will provide you with the time
  • You’d love to have a mentor, but are just too busy (or you think your potential mentor is too busy)
  • You don’t know where to start, who to ask or what to do

If you feel stuck in this mentoring riptide, take heart!  There are likely excellent mentors all around you – with no formal process, fees, or programs required.  To help you find your way, determine a few things:

  • What do you want out of mentorship?  Are you looking for a guide for life, or perhaps just for the next year?  Do you need someone for a particular point in time, to help you through a challenging situation like a job transition, a new leadership role, or a challenging conflict? Do you want a mentor that will meet regularly, or one with whom you can have impromptu/point in time discussions?
  • Who qualifies as a mentor?    Do you need to have the CEO to feel like it is a valuable use of your time?  Could it be your office mate?  Your brother-in-law?  Your old college friend?  I often use the rule of, “Can I learn some essential things from this person?”  If so, I’ve probably just made them a mentor on some level.
  • What do you offer?  Is there a case for this person to spend their most precious commodity (their free time) with you?  What will they get out of the deal?  The less the person knows you, the more you may have to make that an explicit part of the ‘ask.’.  If you can’t find anything of value you are giving to the mentor, it may be the wrong person to approach.  Or you may need to build your confidence and recognize what you bring to the table.

Once you’ve determined your internal parameters for mentorship:

  • Determine the optimal structure of the relationship.  The Mentoring graph provides a guide for thinking about the different types of mentorship, measuring the level of formality of the association against the level of expertise differential between mentee and mentor. You may feel you need to focus on just one domain, or you may feel you want a mentor in each one.  The right composition will depend on the time and energy investment you and the mentor are willing to give.
  • Look around you.  Examine who in your life is already providing your mentorship.  Chances are, there is someone (or many someones) you are already leveraging for their knowledge, expertise, honesty, listening skills, and willingness to challenge you.  Determine how you want to leverage their ninja-like capabilities and make this an explicit part of the relationship – and what you will offer them in exchange.
  • Know the limits.  There may be times when the counsel and support you can get from a mentoring relationship isn’t enough; you might need some more robust training or consultation (e.g., advanced education, certifications, therapy, or formal supervision).  Have a candid conversation with your mentor if you find your needs aren’t getting met; the chances are good that they are feeling similarly.  They may even have resources to help you achieve your next goal.
  • Be a mentor.  One of the best ways to expand your expertise is to mentor others.  Being challenged, questioned, and asked for your expertise will bolster your knowledge and confidence.  Iron sharpens iron.  It’s also a great way to pay it forward for all the tremendous mentoring you will receive over your lifetime.
  • Get going!  What are you waiting for?  You’ve got everything you need to find the right mentoring relationship, muster up the courage to ask, and reap the benefits of the vast expertise all around you.

Lastly, Be Grateful.  I am grateful for the scores of mentors I have active in my life. Everyone is helping me build toward my life’s ultimate mission, professionally, personally, or both. I engage each person or group at least once per quarter (most once a month), and the payoff is worth every bit of the time.  To each mentor (and you know who you are), THANK YOU!