How to Convince a Stranger to be Your Mentor

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When I arrived in the U.S. from India to attend college, I was excited and motivated, but also a bit lonely and overwhelmed. Alia, a distant cousin who lived nearby, often invited me to her house for holidays and provided bits of advice—from tips on how to get along with my roommate, to how to dress for my first internship. Without even asking her, Alia was my first mentor.

Most people aren’t so lucky to stumble upon a great mentor. Instead we have to find people we respect and ask for their guidance. However, asking for help from a stranger can be intimidating. After all, why would a stranger, or even a close acquaintance, give up precious time to give you free advice on your career? Actually, most mentors enjoy the satisfaction of contributing to your growth, the opportunity to pass on hard-won wisdom and a chance to reflect on their own successes. But, first, you have to convince them to help you.

Once you’ve identified a potential mentor, there are ways to go about “the ask” that will give you the best chance of securing her help. Follow these nine steps to ask for a mentor’s guidance, get her to say yes and build a lasting relationship that’s satisfying for you both.

1. Do your homework on yourself

Be clear on what you want. Are you asking for in-depth career help, simple advice, or for some innovative ideas? After asking yourself these questions, it’s OK to realize that perhaps part of what you need from a mentor is clarity on your next steps. Getting clear about what you need—or at least understanding that you have no idea what you need—will help you frame your request for help.

2. Do your homework on the field

Take your time before you take her time. What information can you mine on the web about the sector you hope to enter, or the job you hope to obtain?

3. Do your homework on your potential mentor

Visit her website, look at her LinkedIn profile and read any materials she may have published. Get to know the person whose help you want before approaching her.

When Brandon, a finance executive, decided he wanted to become an executive coach, he spent weeks researching the market before approaching me to ask for mentoring. During our meeting, Brandon shared his analysis of a few ways he could enter the market and asked me for ideas of how else he could start to engage clients. He had studied my client list and came armed with specific questions. Because Brandon did all three parts of his homework, I was more motivated to help him. He made efficient use of our time together and walked away with specific tips, action items, and contacts.

Now you’re ready to ask for help. Make sure to follow these three guidelines when you “make the ask.”

4. Value her time

The easiest way to show that you value your potential mentor’s time is to approach her via a succinct email. Most people will immediately deal with emails that require less than a minute to process and ignore more complicated messages. Here’s an example of a well-executed “ask” email:

Subject: 15 mins of your time – your expertise in healthcare

Dear Jane,

In 10 years, I aspire to be where you are in your career today: coaching executives and working with leadership teams in the healthcare sector. Based on the testimonials on your website, your methodology has clearly made a big impact.

I’d appreciate your help to understand how you entered the healthcare market so I might begin a similar career path.

Jonathan Baker really admires your skills and suggested I get in touch with you. Your insights will add something I can’t glean from the research I’ve done on this sector.

I know your time is precious, so I’d like to limit my request to 15 minutes of your time at your convenience. I promise to keep our conversation brief, as I’ve already done homework on the field and your work. Also, if there’s anything I can do to help return the favor, please let me know.

Thanks in advance,

Jason

5. Be accommodating

When asking someone for help, make it easy for her to help you! Remember, you’re asking for a favor, so you need to accommodate her schedule and make it easy for her to say yes.

Joe was a business leader looking to move from Singapore to Seattle. He connected with Cathy, who had similar work experience and was based in Seattle. Joe’s email to Cathy listed the times he could talk with Cathy, but he provided these times in the Singapore time zone. Cathy was miffed she had to calculate the time zone difference, starting their relationship off on the wrong foot.

Carla, an acquaintance of an acquaintance of an acquaintance, asked me for help on how to become a coach. At that time, I was immersed in day-long training sessions and offered to speak to Carla in the evening. Carla replied: “I reserve the evenings for family time, so can you talk during the day?” While I admired Carla for setting a clear boundary around family time, I wasn’t able to accommodate her request. She wanted my help, but was inflexible about when to receive it.

6. Keep it short

People who ask for 15 minutes of someone’s time are more likely to get on that person’s calendar than those who ask for an hour. This is also an indication you respect the mentor’s time.

Congratulations! Your potential mentor said yes to a meeting. Now that you’ve got a meeting on the books, make sure to conduct this meet-up with the utmost professionalism.

7. State what you want up front

Rapport building is important, but don’t spend the first 20 minutes on small talk. Tell her up front what you’d like. Skipping the small talk may feel uncomfortable, but starting with a polite introduction and then jumping into business is the best way to stay on track.

8. Ask what you can do for the mentor

Most mentors choose to help people purely to give back, but it never hurts to ask what favors you can provide in return for their help. When people ask what they can do for me, I ask them to comment on or share my articles. The few people who follow through on this request stand out and I feel more inclined to give them more of my time.

9. Thank your mentor

This may seem like a no-brainer, but about a quarter of the people I mentor never send follow-up thank you emails. Again, most mentors don’t help others to be thanked, but common courtesy helps. Besides, a thank you email offers another communication touchpoint with your mentor. Emails are an integral part of building a lasting, mutually-beneficial relationship; remember to send regular emails telling your mentor how her advice has helped you.

Lana was an engineer turned executive coach who approached me for mentoring. She was willing to meet at a café near my house and offered her help in return on anything I might need. Over the years, Lana has sent me handwritten thank you notes that clearly explain how I contributed to her success. By sending me an email at least once a quarter, shes always on my radar and I’ve referred clients to her. Lana has become so successful, now I sometimes ask her for advice!

Mentoring happens every day in the business world. Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to get unbidden mentoring, like I did from Alia. But, mostly, you have to ask to receive.

This article appeared in Forbes on November 7, 2017.
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Sabina Nawaz

Sabina Nawaz is a global CEO coach, leadership keynote speaker, and writer working with executives in Fortune 500 corporations, government, non-profits, and academia.  Previously Sabina spent 14+ years at Microsoft first in software development and then in HR.  She led the company’s executive development and succession planning efforts for over 11,000 managers and 700 executives. Sabina has spoken at hundreds of seminars, events, and conferences. Sabina believes the greatest privilege of working with leaders is bearing witness to their acts of courage.

Look for more stories, insights, and advice on thriving as a leader on Forbes, HBR, and Inc and her TEDx talk. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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