three tips to approach a mentor

I recently got approached by a former workshop participant (let’s call him Pedro) for some general tips and advice on setting up his own business.


After 16 years of running my own show, what could I tell him? Where should I start?!

So I thought I would put some advice together; three tips on how to choose a mentor and, more importantly, what to ask to get the best results.

Asking for advice from someone who has done what you want to do is smart.

A study by Gartner which measured the financial benefits of mentoring at SunMicrosystems (owned by Oracle) found that those employees who had received mentoring were promoted 5 times more often than their peers.

(And, interestingly, people who acted as formal mentors were promoted six times more often than peers who did not).

It could be that your objective is to get insider knowledge on how to navigate company politics or to get a different perspective to your challenges. Whatever your motivation, the benefits of having a mentor are well understood by many leading figures in business (here's Richard Branson's take on it).

Firstly, I want to congratulate Pedro for sticking his hand up and asking for help.

The fastest way to learn about something you want to do is to ask someone who’s done it before - as I found out when I got my book published by Bloomsbury.

The asking part is something I covered in my review of "Give and Take" by Adam Grant, Wharton Professor of Management. It’s not easy, but you have to ask. Be brave and stop thinking you can do it all yourself!

Some of us - me included - don’t do this enough.

Only a few days ago a kind friend, a Communications Director of a prestigious business school, literally had to hound me to let her help me put together a plan to launch the second edition of my book.

It felt uncomfortable accepting help, when I am normally the giver.

Note to self - don’t get in your own way

So Tip Number 1 is: ask for help

Tip Number 2 - ask in an effective way by being specific about what you want to find out.

This is where Pedro went wrong, and many people I work with fall at this hurdle.

But don’t beat yourself up.

I work with some of the best potential talent in the world and they still get this wrong!

No-one has hours to spend ‘chatting’ with someone about something vague. It’s often a waste of time yielding only generic answers, and implies you don’t value your contact’s time enough to do some research so you can ask some well thought out questions.

Start by getting really clear on your goals.

Then “reverse engineer” the knowledge you’ll need to achieve them. This will lead to a coherent set of specific questions you need to ask.

Once you have your list you need to think about who you’re going to ask. It’s unlikely that one mentor will be able to answer all your questions.

Finally, think about the order of the questions. Does one area of knowledge build on another? This may be especially important if you are approaching more than one person.

The result of all this should be that you ask the correct person the correct questions in the correct order. Good news for you, and good news for your mentor(s)!

Tip Number 3 – keep in touch and follow up

People who like to help (described as ‘Givers’ in the book ‘Give and Take’) want to feel appreciated. We want that warm rosy feeling that comes from positively affecting someone’s life. That’s all we ask!

So tell us when you get the interview.

Tell us when you get the job.

Tell us when you land your first client.

We want to celebrate with you.

Come on, make our day!

Recently someone I introduced to my publisher mentioned that I was her Jedi Knight (you need to read the blog post to get that reference!) – and my encouragement and contacts had helped her publish 5 books!

I’d actually forgotten all about this. Suffice it to say that news of her success made me really really happy! This is all the reward givers like me need.

Don’t forget the “Ben Franklin effect” here: someone who has performed a favour for you is more likely to do another favour for you than they would be if they had received a favour from you.

Sounds counter-intuitive, but the reasoning behind this is that if we have helped someone we sub-consciously decide we like that person so as to justify helping them in the first place. Once that “liking” is installed in our sub-conscious it becomes easier to help that person a second time.

Interestingly the converse can also be true. If we have harmed someone we will sub-consciously start to dislike them as our minds attempt justify our behaviour.

Bonus tip – realize there is a limit to the advice you will get from someone who makes their living by giving that same advice.

I’m a professional career coach. I support my family by giving career advice. So unless someone’s a close friend or family member I cannot afford to review their CV or give career advice in any kind of depth without charging them.

I do pro-bono work but it has to be on my instigation otherwise I can easily get swamped and end up not fulfilling my paid work. Then the mortgage doesn’t get paid…you get the picture!

Of course it’s the same for any profession. All of us asking for help need to think carefully about whether the people we’re approaching would normally get paid for providing the advice we’re seeking.

If the answer’s “yes” then be careful to limit your questions, or even consider becoming a client if that investment is going to give you the knowledge you need to move forward.

So that’s it. My advice to Pedro is to follow these 3 tips - plus the bonus one 😉 - and get back to me, ok?

Interested in this kind of information? I write about the issues my clients face when growing their career, review books I have found useful, and interview interesting people who are proactively developing businesses and careers that matter. Don’t want to miss anything? Then join the Career Farm community for updates...

Join to get updates