Helen Tupper: The best way to get a mentor is to never ask for one

Helen Tupper, head of marketing at Virgin Red, outlines three steps all marketers should take when trying to build a successful mentor relationship

Helen Tupper

Imagine this: you are busy at work and you are doing a great job. Out of the blue, you get an email from someone you have never met, asking for a long-term relationship with you. How do you respond? Flattery aside, most people would probably find this a bit weird and either click delete or politely decline. It may sound odd, but this is the situation that occurs all too often when people approach a potential mentor. Asking someone you have never met to be your mentor without defining what you want to learn, why you think you can learn it from them and how much of their time you require, is a common and unsuccessful approach to establishing a mentor relationship, which is a real shame given how strongly linked mentoring is to career success.

A research study published in The Journal of Psychology found that people who are mentored receive higher levels of compensation, more promotions and enjoy higher job satisfaction. With this in mind, it might seem counter-intuitive for me to advise that the best way to get a mentor is to never actually ask for one. To prevent people hitting delete when they receive that mentor relationship request, you need to change how you approach the relationship from the outset. Here are my three steps to building successful mentor relationships.

1. Give and gain

Be clear about what you have to offer a mentor relationship and what you are looking to gain. People often approach a mentor with a vague request for their time. Think about what you want to learn to help your career in the next 12 to 18 months. Then think about what you could offer in return. Have you got specialist knowledge or skills? Could you help them to organise an event? Could you connect them to someone who could help them? A direct trade of your skills for their experience is not required, however it can open doors. This worked very well for someone in my team, who offered her expertise in online marketing to improve her mentor’s website and in return received a commitment of their time to help her development.

2. Match needs and skills

Once you know what you are looking to gain, identify five people who you think have got the relevant experience to help you. Many people just ask for mentors because of their seniority or status, in the hope that it will advance their position. This is a transparent approach that rarely leads to additive mentor relationships. Instead, articulate to someone exactly why you think they could help your development. You could say: “I really admire the way you have been able to run your business alongside your job. I have been developing my own enterprise and am now thinking about how to grow it. I would find it extremely helpful to spend 30 minutes with you to benefit from your experience.” This is a much more considered and authentic approach for the individual on the receiving end.

3. Just meet once

A successful mentor relationship relies a lot upon the dynamic between mentor and mentee. The reality is that as brilliant as someone might seem, if you don’t have the same impression when you meet them, it is unlikely to be a great career development exercise for you. If you have already created a multiple-meeting expectation up front, it can be difficult to get out of. In my early career, I was ‘gifted’ a mentor through a university programme. It was a bad match and I had to sit through three months of meetings before I felt able to extract myself. A better solution is to ask for one meeting. During the meeting, you can see whether your own expectations of the value of their experience matches up. If you find it valuable, the likelihood is that they enjoyed the session too and you’re on good ground to ask for a follow-up meeting.

Once you have gone through these three steps, you need to keep the relationship going by letting your mentor know how you are implementing the learning and advice you gleaned and also make sure you have a few different mentors you can go to.

Mentors can be valuable to your career, and with a bit of effort in how you cultivate them, you can create a relationship that develops alongside your own growth.

Helen Tupper will be speaking at this year’s Festival of Marketing. To find out more about Helen’s talk click here.

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