Q. I would like to ask a colleague I respect tremendously to mentor me. I don’t work with him directly, but I know he’d be a great help. How do I ask? I don’t want to be a burden and I hope he’d enjoy spending time with me too. I want to bring specific ideas and goals to the table - is that too pushy?
A. There is a difference between pushy and prepared, and if you are going to ask for career support from someone, you need to show just how seriously you take their time and that you are highly invested in making the process easy.
A mentor is a person who acts as a trusted advisor to someone less experienced or new to a job or industry. Some industries and functions have apprentice roles with a senior craftsperson that plays the mentor. Some organizations have formal mentor/mentee programs, or mentoring can happen informally between two people who agree to a mentoring relationship. Either way, the mentoring arrangement should be determined by the goals and availability of the mentor and protégé.
There are many benefits to working with a mentor. They can help you with professional development, offer advice and encouragement, help you develop a network of colleagues and professional contacts, and help you understand politics in the workplace and the savvy to avoid issues.
The fact that you have a potential mentor selected means you’ve already crossed the biggest hurdle. You know your mentor, and don’t have a straight reporting relationship. Identifying a potential mentor who works within your company would be great, but is not a requirement. Finding someone who works or worked in your industry or function however is critical. You will benefit most from working with someone who has a shared understanding of what you do and where your challenges fit in your career trajectory.
Before you ask, assess the strength of the current relationship. Is there a mutual respect? Does your potential mentor like you? Have they been supportive in the past?
When asking your potential mentor to work with you, explain why you want to work with them and provide 2 or 3 goals you would like to work on through the relationship. Provide suggestions on how they might be helpful. Explain what you have learned already from “being in their circle”. If they suggest keeping the relationship informal, ask them to consider a 90-day trial period where you meet 2-3 times to asses if the mentor/protégé relationship will work. That gives you ample time to determine if it’s a fit, while giving you both an out if it’s not. Many people are interested in supporting others, but worry that they will take the burden of “making this work”. Let them know you hope to retain the informal relationship as well, but that you would also hope you have something to offer them, and open up the idea of a two way street. Clearly communicate your hopes on how long the ‘trial’ relationship will last and how frequently you would like to meet. Ask what might be the right amount of time for them. Remember their time is valuable and this shouldn’t be a never ending assignment.
If they say no, recognize the timing may be bad, the relationship isn’t there, or they don’t want the added responsibility. Be professional and retain a cordial relationship. They may suggest other people you can meet who can also provide professional development opportunities, and a flattered colleague is better than an unhappy mentor and mentee.