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What’s the Right Way to Find a Mentor?

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Janet T. Phan for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Getty Images

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In the summer of 2004, I was 18 years old, preparing for my first year of college and looking for ways to fund my education. I was working double shifts at KFC and late nights at Hollywood Video, and yet, one day, I found myself at a gas station without enough money to fill up my tank.

I made a promise to myself to do whatever it would take to never be in this situation again: one where I was living from paycheck to paycheck, working multiple jobs, and couch surfing to save money on rent. Working harder — in my case, 12-hour days — wasn’t getting me anywhere, but I knew that working smarter could. As the child of refugee parents from Vietnam, I didn’t have anyone at home who understood how to navigate the American school system or workforce. I knew I needed help, someone to guide me.

A good mentor can make a huge imprint on your life, and it is thanks to not one, but many, that I was able to grow from that woman stuck at the gas station into who I am now. I turned to my former high school teacher, a person I could trust, who advocated for my education and gave me advice that prepared me to succeed in college. Once I graduated, I started an IT internship where I met a mentor who, six years later, helped me land a job in tech. Today, I’m a global technology program manager for one of the world’s largest firms, and founder of Thriving Elements, a nonprofit mentoring program for underserved, underrepresented girls around the globe.

My work has taught me some valuable lessons, but perhaps the most important is that no matter what stage you’re at, it’s worth learning how to make an ask, nurture, and maintain these kinds of relationships. Fostered correctly, they can put you in the driver’s seat of your career, empower you to explore options that were previously unimaginable, give you access to untapped opportunities, and teach you how to navigate the challenges you never saw coming.

Here are a few tips on how you can find mentors, and maintain and nurture those relationships.

Ask for that first meeting.

Seventy-six percent of people say that mentors are important, but only 37% actually have one. Why the gap? In my experience, it’s because most people are afraid to ask for that initial meeting. The fear of rejection is real and it’s even more amplified during this pandemic.

Reaching out to someone you admire, but who you may not know so well — especially if that person is more senior than you — is a little more intimidating than it was when you could casually walk by their desk, bump into them in the hallway, or chat in-person during a networking event.

To take some pressure off of yourself and ease the fear, remind yourself that the people you admire have likely had various mentors throughout their lives who have helped them to get to where they are today, and would jump at the opportunity to help others in the same way. If you want to connect with them, start with a simple ask: a quick 15 to 30 minute virtual coffee break.

The best way to reach out is usually sending a short email. Share one or two things you admire about their work, then tell them a little about yourself, why you’re reaching out, what you would like to learn from them, and wrap it up with your ask:

Dear X,

I’ve been reading about the work you’re doing with Y. I’m interested in building my career in technology and I’d love to hear how you rose from a systems analyst to a technical product manager in five years. Would it be possible for us to have a quick video chat sometime within the next couple of weeks?

A first meeting over coffee, or a short video call, is low commitment for your target mentor and will give you an opportunity to better understand them, gauge your chemistry, and see if they’d be the right fit for you.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Janet T. Phan is a global technology consultant and the founder of Thriving Elements, a global nonprofit that connects underserved, underrepresented girls with STEM mentors. Janet’s TEDx talk is entitled 3 Key Elements to a Thriving Mentorship.
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