Most people misunderstand mentoring — I certainly did. For the longest time, I said I wanted a mentor but didn’t understand what that even meant. That is, until someone pulled me aside, invested in me, and taught me what a mentor really was.

I see a lot of young people approaching mentoring the wrong way.

They ask a leader they admire to mentor them, forcing the person into an awkward position in which she feels bad for saying “no” or obligated to say “yes.” But this is not how mentoring works.

Common misconceptions of mentoring

I have a passion to see that change. There is a lot of misunderstanding about how mentoring works, including how to begin a relationship with a mentor. Here are some of them:

  • Mentoring is about me.
  • I need to wait for a mentor to find me.
  • Being mentored is more passive than active.
  • I need to ask someone to mentor me up-front.

Face it: Everything you know about mentoring may be wrong. It’s time to start seeking out a mentor the right way. In finding a mentor, there are 10 important steps I’ve found that usually works:

1. Find someone you want to be like

Don’t just find someone who has a job you want or a platform that you covet.

Find someone that is like you, someone with a similar set of strengths and skills you want to emulate. Otherwise, you’ll just end up frustrated.

Spend some time finding the right person. In fact, have several candidates before committing to a single mentor.

2. Study the person

Follow his blog. Get to know people who know him.

If you don’t know the person well, see if he is really like his public persona projects.

Make sure you understand his strengths and weaknesses. Set your expectations realistically.

3. Make the “ask”

Don’t ask for the person to “be your mentor” right off the bat. That’s a big ask. Far too big for the first meeting.

Rather, ask for an initial meeting — something informal, over coffee maybe. Keep it less than an hour.

Come with questions that you’re prepared to ask, but let the conversation flow relationally. (Note: the formality really depends on the potential mentor’s communication style — something you should be aware of before the initial meeting.)

When in doubt about when to make the ask, just go for it. (That’s what I do, and it usually works.)

4. Evaluate the fruit

After meeting, do you want to spend more time with this person?

Did she begin the meeting by encouraging you or telling you what to do? Did she ask questions, or wait to provide answers?

Did you leave the meeting feeling better about yourself? Was a connection made? If not, feel free to let the relationship go and seek out someone else, instead. You don’t have time to waste on a self-centered tyrant.

If it went well, then immediately put together a follow-up plan.

5. Follow up after the meeting

This is not like dating. It’s okay to appear overly ambitious. You want this person to know that you’re serious.

It’s appropriate to follow up immediately, thanking your prospective mentor for her time.

A good way to do this is via email or other forms of passive communication so that you don’t appear overbearing or waste the person’s time.

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