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How to Ask Someone to Be Your Mentor (Without Feeling Ridiculously Awkward)

How to ask someone to be your mentor can feel daunting—uncomfortable even. But having a specific person guide you and give perspective can be critical if you want to expand your knowledge and grow your career.

So, where to start? We chatted with Sarah Greenberg, Harvard-educated leadership coach and director of clinical design and partnerships for BetterUp, about the core elements of a successful mentorship ask.

1. Make a List of Potential Mentors and How They Can Help

Purpose is everything, Greenberg explains. Before you determine who you want your mentor to be, start by getting clear on a few questions about yourself. “Ask yourself, ‘What is it I’d most like to learn?’” she says. “You can have multiple mentors at multiple times and multiple goals, but we tend to grow the most when we focus for a period of time on one high value area.”

For example, say you want to learn how to code. Or write a book. Start by making a short list of people in your orbit (think colleagues, alumni networks, LinkedIn connections, social media relationships) who may be able to help you learn by sharing their own experience.

2. Next, Make Your Mentorship Ask

Many mentor/mentee relationships come about organically. But that doesn’t mean you should shy away from making a direct request. “Many experienced leaders see helping others develop as the legacy they wish to leave behind,” Greenberg says. “Not everyone will have availability, but you can be confident that there are many who would be motivated to support your efforts.”

Here, what Greenburg suggests you do:

• State (and share) your purpose. In other words, you have to be able to articulate the “big why” for wanting someone’s time and attention. For example, you’re interested in X skill (video production, better presentation skills, etc.) and want to improve your ability so that you can achieve X (expand your resumé, get promoted, etc). “When you share that, they are more likely to see the potential impact and will actually experience a biochemical reinforcement known as the ‘helper’s high’,” Greenberg says.

• Answer ‘Why them?’ Again, your could-be mentors probably have a lot on their plate and no shortage of opportunities. “Be crystal clear about why you are asking them specifically to be your mentor,” sayss Greenberg. “This extra step will also ensure you are asking the right person for the right reason.”

• Get hyper-specific. It’s hard for someone to make a commitment when they aren’t clear about what they are committing to. Start small, asking for an amount of time—say, a half hour meeting every month. “You want to make it easy for them to say yes,” Greenberg says. “As Brené Brown says, ‘Clear is kind.’” (On the flip side, a vague request means your mentor has to bear the cognitive load of trying to determine what you need.)

• Have a plan b. Your hoped-for mentor wants to help, but doesn’t have the bandwidth. That’s OK. Greenberg suggests having alternate options at the ready, and making it clear that you don’t need a large time commitment—perhaps all you ask for is a brief chat to learn more about their career journey. And if your second choice says no, remember that you can learn from that, too. (Sometimes success means saying no.)

3. Need More? Here’s a Script

Here’s exactly what Greenberg once wrote in an email, when asking a mentor to take her on, in order to broaden her communication skills.

First, she succinctly explained her purpose:

I am finding great satisfaction in writing because it in some ways reminds me of why I originally became a therapist: The joy of communicating with humans in a direct, authentic, personal way that also ignites growth. In the spirit of craftsmanship and mastery, I am looking to more intentionally hone this skillset. I think it will also make me more impactful as an employee here.

Next, she identified why this person could have an impact on her development:

I would be honored to get mentorship from you because I trust you, admire you as a leader, and find your writing voice unique in its balance of scientific rigor and accessible conversational tone.

Then, she asked for what she wanted, but also provided alternatives: 

Would you be available and willing to provide mentorship? I haven’t had many mentors, but I was thinking this could look like two 30-minute calls at a convenient time for you where I ask about your own journey as a writer.

Would this be possible? If not, would one call OR asking you a few questions via email happen to work? With all you have going on, I truly understand if you don’t have capacity, and feel lucky I have the opportunity to work with you and learn from you in other ways. 

4. Finally, Beware a Couple of Common Mentorship Pitfalls

Just remember, there is a difference between mentorship and coaching, Greenberg explains. “Broadly speaking, mentors help you grow by sharing knowledge or experience they gained on their own path to success,” she explains. “Your mentor may also be someone in a position to advocate for you to take on new opportunities.” Coaches help you look inward, tapping into your own strengths and capabilities.

Of course, the roles are complementary, Greenberg adds. A mentor can serve as an example for success while a coach can help you personalize your own path to achieve it in a way that’s authentic and sustainable for you.

And remember: A mentor doesn’t have to be a person with more experience than you. “Reverse mentorship” is increasingly popular, Greenberg says, but it’s really just a reminder that knowledge and perspective sharing can happen at any level.