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How to Find and Approach a Mentor

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By Barbara Frankel

Everybody tells you the key to success is finding the right mentor, someone who can help you navigate the corporate culture, advise you on building your skills, and hopefully become a sponsor who can advocate for your advancement.

But how do you know who the right mentor is? And if you identify someone, how do you approach that person?

Here’s some advise that will help you get started finding and approaching a mentor:

  • Identifying a Mentor

The biggest thing to remember is this – DO YOUR HOMEWORK.  Get to know the people, the organization, and what is valued before you set out to find a mentor.

Jodi Davidson, Sodexo

It’s important to study leaders and managers at your company and look for people who have skills and expertise you need. Jodi Davidson, Director, Diversity & Inclusion Initiatives at Sodexo, No. 5 in the The 2015 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity, who leads Sodexo’s diversity mentoring initiatives, advised young employees to “seek out mentors who are close to your level, so that they understand and can relate to your realities.”

She also urged employees to think about whether you want a mentor of “like affinity” or “if it would be more beneficial to connect across difference, e.g. gender, race, etc.”  Many people seek out more than one mentor so they can get advice from people like them as well as people who are different from them.

Tell your supervisor you are looking for a mentor, Davidson said, and ask for help in finding the right one.  Also tell them you will need one to two hours a month once you have a mentor to meet with them.

Marissa Rodriguez, a 26-year-old who recently received a promotion at Accenture, No. 15, has had as many as eight mentors at Accenture, some formal (company-sponsored) and some more casual, such as a mentor who advises her on how to combine being a triathlete (swimming, biking and running) with her career.

Marissa Rodriguez, Accenture

She identified her mentors based on job skills (she is a digital marketing consultant) and interests that dovetailed with her own.  For example, Rodriguez is passionate about diversity and sought out Nellie Borrero, Managing Director, Global Diversity & Inclusion, as a mentor.  She attended events where Nellie and other potential mentors were present and made sure to introduce herself.

Rodriguez also joined two employee-resource groups, one for women and one for Hispanics, and made sure to raise her hand and let the leaders know she was eager for more responsibility.  Three and a half years after joining Accenture, she now is the New York office head of the Hispanic group.

Judy Wheeler, Vice President, Southeast Region, Nissan North America, one of DiversityInc’s 25 Noteworthy Comp

Judy Wheeler, Nissan North America

anies, who has run mentoring programs for 15 years at two automotive companies, said the key is learning (through your performance reviews) what areas you need to improve upon – or think about what areas at work make you uncomfortable – and then seek out mentors who can help with those gaps.

She also suggested finding networking events to get to know the people, especially those in areas that interest you.  “Go introduce yourself to the person that is a key manager in the area of interest,” she said.

Margot James Copeland, Executive Vice President and Director of Philanthropy at KeyCorp, No. 49, advised new employees to take some time and get to know the company – and what its business goals and culture are like – before looking for a mentor.  She cited as an example a “smart young woman” who had been an intern who asked if she could shadow more senior people for a few weeks.

Rodriguez agreed. “I went to large university (Rutgers) and you had to learn how to navigate the ranks. When I came to Accenture, it was the same thing.  I had to connect the dots and introduce myself to people.”

  • How to Approach A Mentor

Take it slow, cautioned Copeland.  Mentoring increasingly is a formal relationship at most companies and some managers and executives don’t want to take on another commitment. So you in essence have to sell yourself.

Margot James Copeland, KeyCorp
Margot James Copeland, KeyCorp

“It’s like asking someone out on a date and then asking them to marry you.  It’s a commitment and people don’t want to make commitments to someone they don’t know,” she maintained.

Instead, she advised people to approach the person and ask for a “mentoring moment” or some quick advice so they can get to know you.   “I have people who ask if they can spend an hour in my office and chat. That’s a good start,” she said.

Davidson suggested extending an invitation to potential mentors and clearly letting them know what you’re looking for and why you chose them.  She added: “Respect their time, make it a mutually worthwhile investment.”

That factor is critical in a successful mentoring relationship – you, as the mentee, need to schedule the appointments, create and send agendas, and reach a common definition of goals.

Davidson also urged mentees to always be professional – “steer away from using your sessions to vent” and “provide feedback – acknowledge the value your mentor brings.”

And Nissan’s Wheeler added, “Executives and managers are willing to help. Ask for their advice.  The majority of us started at the bottom and worked our way up in our field.  We enjoy assisting others in their endeavor for self-improvement.”

Sometimes Rodriguez had to take the reigns in the mentoring relationship to ensure she got what she needed.

“Understand your career goals and set boundaries,” she said.  “For example, I knew this was my year to get promoted (from analyst to consultant).  I asked my mentors what I needed to do and scheduled regular touch points.  And I did get that promotion.”

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