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You don’t need a mentor.

This is something I say often, because one of the most common questions I get asked is how someone can find a mentor. This question is starting to drive me crazy.

This is such a limiting way to think about your own career.

Think about it: would you ask the same person for advice on what shirt to buy as you would ask for advice on how to fix your refrigerator?

Looking for one person to be your mentor in your career can be helpful, but is also very limiting.   There are better ways.  Most people seek out mentors by looking for a formal relationship – asking someone to be their mentor – but more often than not this doesn’t lead to the kind of relationships and growth they are hoping for.

So this week I wanted to write my thoughts on having a mentor and give you the strategy that I use to be successful both as a mentor and a mentee.

you don't need a mentor


Why formal mentorship rarely works

I have worked at companies where a mentor is assigned to high potential individuals, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that worked out particularly well for the mentor or the mentee.

No one has ever told me what a great experience it was for them.

So while it might sound appealing to be assigned a mentor (since it means you don’t have to go out and look for one), it isn’t nearly as effective as it is to have someone who has taken an interest in your career and decided to mentor or help you out voluntarily.

The only kinds of formal mentorship that I have seen that are effective are really specialized ones, like in incubators like TechStars, or formal education programs. That kind of mentorship works because it is so specific. The mentors you are assigned are experts in an area like raising a Series A or growing your customer base, and so their input is extremely valuable at the time you’re receiving it.

And that specificity is exactly what is missing from the mentoring relationships most people are chasing.


Why many unofficial mentors are better than one official one

I have several mentors, but I don’t meet with any of them every week — or even every month. For the most part, I see my mentors maybe 1-2 times a year.

Why? Well, because most of the mentors you want are really, really busy.

They don’t have an hour a week to just go over general career questions with you. They are admirable and valuable mentors because they have a lot going on.

So I use my mentors’ time really carefully. I only come to them when I have a specific situation that I know they have expert insight on.

That specificity is where the value of mentorship comes in. You don’t want to only have one person to go to for every question. Why limit yourself to having a lot of one person’s perspective, when you can have a little bit of many expert perspectives?

Instead of trying to find one perfect person to mentor you, focus on building relationships with people who you admire and have something to offer you.

When I wanted to start my own business, I sought out successful entrepreneurs and took them out for coffee long before I ever left my corporate job. Once that relationship was in place, I could send them an email with questions after I started Popforms, and since they knew me already, they’d be likely to answer and help.

You shouldn’t look for a “mentor”. You should be looking for a strong network. If you are connected to smart and successful people, you have an endless supply of smart and successful mentors who can help you succeed.

Not only is relationship-building in this way more effective, but I also don’t want to waste anyone’s time (including my own) by setting a recurring meeting, where I may or may not have anything to talk about.

Instead, I wait until I have a question I really need mentorship or help with, and then I reach out to the best person to help me.


How to find and get real mentors

Now that you know you shouldn’t be looking for just one person, here are my best tips for curating your group of mentors and advisers:

Find mentors who aren’t like you.

I once heard a fellow speaker at an event explain why women in tech should actually pursue male mentors — even though the conventional wisdom is that women in tech should find other women to mentor them. Her reasoning, though, was that as a woman in tech, most of the people (for now) that you work with are going to be men. So it helps to have the perspective and input of someone who is like most of your coworkers.

In addition, you can help further the cause of women in tech by having a male mentor who is learning about you, how you approach problems, what issues you face in the workplace, etc. creating a greater understanding of what it is like to be a woman in this field.

Mentorship should be a 2-way street, where both people are getting something out of it. So finding a mentor who is different than you allows you both to learn and grow beyond the career topics you bring them questions about.

Find mentors who you have something really specific in common with.

I get lots of questions from people saying they want me to mentor them because we’re both women or because we’re both from Seattle. And I always think: so what? Just because we have one broad thing in common doesn’t mean I have anything necessarily to offer you.

On the other hand, if someone asks me for advice on transitioning from software engineer to manager, or running a successful Kickstarter, I am much more likely to offer them my time because I know I have specific insight to offer them and that my advice will add significant measurable value to an important part of their career.

Don’t ask them to “be your mentor”.

First, being someone’s mentor sounds like a lot of responsibility and commitment that most busy people don’t have time for. Second, that request is so vague and general. Imagine someone asking you that. Wouldn’t your first question be, “Ummm…so what do you want to know?”

Better to skip that step and just drive straight to the questions you want to know the answers to. Don’t try to lock anyone into some long-term mentorship commitment.

If you’ve formed strong relationships in your network, long-term mentors will appear naturally. You’ll click with some people and less with others, and your favorite resource to reach out to (and add value back to) will emerge and provide those relationships everyone is looking for.

Pitch them a specific question.

I get emails all the time from people who want to meet for coffee, but who give no reason for why. I have a busy workday, a commute, and a family at home, and so I rarely take a meeting that doesn’t have a clear goal. If you want to connect with someone, give them a reason (like asking for advice on a specific topic).

Even if they can’t meet in person (remember, good mentors are usually busy) they’re more likely to still send you an answer by email or send you referrals/resources if you’ve asked a specific question.

Don’t expect to get too much of their time (and don’t see that as a bad thing).

Like I said before, the best mentors usually don’t have that much time — so use your encounters with them wisely. Don’t get lunch just to catch up or “pick their brain”. Bring specific questions (the ones you pitched them in your email, ideally) and maximize whatever time you get with them.

Don’t see it as a failure if you don’t see this person again for a year. Instead, simply follow up thanking them for their time and letting them know how you implemented their advice. (People love seeing their advice actually used and helping people be successful!)

And don’t reach out again until you have another specific question or something you can offer them in return.

Try to meet in person, and be prepared.

If you want someone to become a mentor you can reach out to again and again, try meeting them in person for lunch. It turns out that, psychologically, when we eat a meal with someone we feel closer to them, so if you want to build a relationship this is a good thing to do. And you should, of course, offer to pay for their meal (they are doing you a favor after all, and the cost of a lunch is often a very small price to pay for really valuable advice, introductions, etc.).

You should also write out the questions you want to ask, so you don’t waste time or miss anything. And write down way more questions than you think you’ll have time for, so you are prepared to make the most of your time with them.

Think of followups, potential pitfalls, questions about their personal experience, and anything else you can to make sure you get the most valuable information possible.


You don’t even need to meet your mentors to get value from them

My final note on mentorship: you don’t even need to know a person in order for them to be a valuable mentor to you.

I remember I once saw a CEO run an incredible board meeting. I knew he was rushing off to another meeting afterwards, so instead of trying to meet with him or ask him questions, I just ran to my desk and wrote down everything he had done that made the meeting so good.

Those notes have continued to serve me well, and I didn’t even have to have a conversation to get value from him. All I had to do was observe and apply his example.

There are so many amazing people in your office and in your world who can mentor you. You should see your boss as a mentor, even if they are terrible, because they have something to teach you about being promoted within your organization, if nothing else.

There are also so many people in the world who can mentor you. I get emails all the time from people asking for my advice, and even though I am busy, I respond to almost all of them. It might not always happen fast, but I try to reply to everyone. :)

And lots of people are that way. So why not give it a shot? If someone is an expert at something, odds are they like talking about it — so send them an email with your question. Getting an email back could be the ticket to learning something new that can take you to the next level, even without ever talking to this person face-to-face or on the phone.

And that is the true value of a mentor. Someone who can take you to the next level by sharing something valuable with you.

So stop looking for a long-term commitment or an official “mentor”, and start building a network of people you admire. It will take you so much farther.


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Tags: advice, growth, mentors, relationships, Strategy, success,

4 Responses to “You don’t need a mentor!”

  1. Kate

    Really enjoyed reading this and would love to see the notes on what the CEO did to run a successful board meeting (esp if it’s applicable to any type of meeting). Also, from LEAN IN, loved the idea of a “sponsor” — a leader within your org — who may advocate on your behalf. FYI, article in NYT (and book from HBR), “Mentors are Good, Sponsors are Better.”

    Would love to hear views on this. My company, for instance, has no real “sponsorship” culture. Could be good work to lay that path.

    • Samantha Bowen

      Thanks for sharing the sponsor link Kate. Having a personal sponsor is something that confuses me, but it is definitely something I want to read/explore further.

      As for mentors, I have at least five at the moment (all with different specialties/expertise). All from attending networking events and forming strong relationships with them. I know their background and I ask them in depth Qs every time We catch up BUT I also ask them about their life outside of work as knowing about their other commitments makes me appreciate the time they spend with me.

      – Great article KateM!!

  2. Hendrik Laubscher

    Kate – this post nails this issue very clearly. A strong network is infinitely stronger than a single or 2 mentors. I am in total agreement with your sentiment there.

    I also believe in the pay it forward line of thinking. Helping others without the need for material benefit in situations that you have been is also good.

    This post should be required reading for anyone that is serious about their career and quest for further learning.

  3. Greg

    What would you say to someone who feels that they know mentorship is a two way street but feels they have nothing else to offer back?
    I am someone relatively new in the field- I know that I would have nothing to offer people as I am a the bottom of the ladder.
    I feel that everytime I talk to someone I am asking advice from them but the only thing I can give back is profuse thanks.