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While developing and facilitating mentorship programs at Toronto Metropolitan University, I’ve seen hundreds of students benefit from a direct connection to a mentor in career, academic or personal development settings. Formal and informal mentors have also made a significant positive impact on my own career, whether they were directly advising me or serving as a relatable and compassionate outlet for my concerns.

The right mentor can provide a valuable look inside your industry of interest, encourage you and help you recognize your strengths and areas for improvement at any stage in your professional journey. Mentorship could be exactly what you need to take the next step in your career—and finding a mentor is easier than you might think.

Envisioning a Dream Mentor

A successful mentoring relationship is one in which the mentee and mentor are excited to engage with a shared topic of interest and are communicative, empathetic and reciprocal. Before starting a mentoring relationship, remember that: 1) a mentor is not a substitute for a counselor, academic or career adviser, or professor, 2) mentees should not place an expectation of employment on their mentor and 3) your mentor may not have all the answers to your questions, but they will ideally be willing to connect you with the resources you are looking for.

Knowing what a mentor can reasonably offer, you should decide on general goals for what you want to get out of mentorship and what kind of mentor you are looking for. Keep in mind that you won’t find a mentor that checks all of your boxes, but thinking deeply at this stage will help you clearly communicate when reaching out to potential mentors. Perhaps you and your mentor can openly discuss your academic and professional journeys. Maybe they can help you grow your network. If you are hoping for a promotion, your ideal mentor could recommend rewarding learning opportunities and resources to help you get there.

Beyond the industry they work in, consider your dream mentor’s education, years of experience, working location and title. Is it important to you to speak with someone who completed a master’s degree? Or do you want to hear from someone with 10-plus years of work experience, regardless of their educational background? Do you want a mentor who can meet with you in person, or are virtual meetings satisfactory (thus opening up your list of possible mentors)?

Additionally, you may want a mentor who can shed light on specific lived experiences. For example, if you are an international student, you may benefit from speaking with someone who shares your experience. However, don’t assume that commonalities in personal identity and background are something that people will always be open to discussing—ask first.

Identifying Potential Mentors

Before researching potential mentors that reflect the list you created, leverage what is already offered through your institution or workplace. There may be existing mentorship programs to join or alumni networks you can use to connect with someone. Try speaking with a program adviser or supervisor about the kind of mentor you are looking for and ask for a warm referral.

If that’s not an option, use social media websites to filter potential mentors using the criteria you decided upon. LinkedIn’s filters are detailed and serve as a good place to start, but other websites may be more relevant to your industry. Journalists are more active on Twitter than LinkedIn, for example.

Additionally, you can try finding mentors through professional associations for your industry. A simple Google search of “professional association + [your industry here]” should result in the names of active organizations representing hundreds of professionals in your field.

Contacting Potential Mentors

You’ve created a short list of possible mentors, so now it’s time to contact them. Conduct an informational interview before you ask to kick off a mentoring relationship. A preliminary meeting will give you a better idea of the mentor’s personality and if they are the right fit. At the end of the informational interview, or in a follow-up email, ask the person if they would be willing to keep in touch. That message could be as simple as:

“Hi [name here],

Thank you for meeting with me today. It was a pleasure to hear about your work and I would like to keep in touch. Are you available to meet again in a month to speak further?”

You can also be more up front and ask them formally to be your mentor:

“Hi [name here],

Thank you for meeting with me today. It was a pleasure to hear about your work. At this stage in my career, I’m seeking mentorship to support my professional development, and your insights are quite valuable. Are you available to continue meeting informally once every month or two?”

Don’t take it personally if they have follow-up questions about your motives or say no. If they decline, it’s probably because of their own schedule and commitments. Hopefully, they agree—and you’ve found yourself a mentor!

Making the Most of Your Mentorship

Now that you’ve found a mentor, seize this opportunity and make it worthwhile. As the mentee who sought out a mentor, be conscientious about booking meetings and respect the allotted time. Get the logistical questions out of the way in the first meeting: How often should we meet? How do you prefer to communicate? How will we know when this mentorship is “over”?

Set measurable goals for your mentorship and create a shared document to keep track of your notes and progress. Goals could include:

  • Update my résumé by X date
  • Read X book by the next meeting
  • Speak to three more people within the industry by X date

Come prepared to meetings with open-ended questions that welcome a mutual sharing of knowledge. Strike a balance in your meetings and avoid one-way, top-down conversations by being willing to talk about your own experiences. Here are some examples of general questions that welcome storytelling and reflection:

  • How did you get to your current position?
  • What’s something you wish you had known earlier?
  • Have you ever failed or faced a setback? How did you recover?
  • What are the essential skills that someone in your position should have?
  • What strategies do you use for long-term planning?
  • What’s a goal you’re currently working toward?
  • If you ever feel like an impostor, how do you deal with it?
  • What about your job do you find motivating?
  • Who do you consider to be your mentors?
  • How would you describe your leadership style?

Let questions become more specific as you feel more comfortable talking about yourself. For example:

  • What would you consider to be my strengths?
  • What skills do you think I need to improve and what are your recommendations for professional development resources?
  • I’m dealing with X situation at work right now. What’s the best way to approach this?
  • When looking at my résumé, what stands out to you?

Ideally, your mentorship takes no more than three to four hours a month, but you can set a timeline and schedule for yourself—just be sure to communicate it clearly with your mentor. Whether you’re using calendar reminders or frequently reviewing your progress, you will need to hold yourself accountable to the goals you set for your mentorship.

Wrapping up a Mentoring Relationship

If you set goals for your mentoring relationship, you’ll know when it’s about time for it to end. Try to reflect on your progress with your mentor and ask questions that will help you continue learning after you stop meeting regularly. For example:

  • How can I continue to grow my network?
  • What can I do to continue developing my strengths and leadership skills?
  • What did you learn or gain from our time working together?

With time and patience, mentorship will give you beneficial insights into yourself and your career journey. Mentorship requires some vulnerability, but know that there are no silly questions. Welcome constructive feedback—you are doing this to push yourself, after all.

If you are feeling any sense of reluctance about taking up a mentor’s time, remember that as long as you respect your mutually established expectations, people are genuinely interested in supporting you and you’re not burdensome for reaching out. Mentors welcome the opportunity to gain your perspective and the communication and leadership skills required to be a mentor will also help them develop professionally.

Throughout your mentorship, but especially as you near the end of it, vocalize your gratitude to your mentor. Keep in touch, share your wins and consider paying it forward.

Shailee Koranne works in the Tri-Mentoring Program at Toronto Metropolitan University in Toronto. She supports the academic, professional and personal development of equity-deserving students and oversees the creation and facilitation of mentorship programs for graduate students at the university.

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