In Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In she devotes a chapter to mentorship and how many people approach her at the end of a talk or conference asking her (without a prior relationship) to be their mentor. She admits this is an awkward situation, and obviously cannot mentor all these individuals. I have heard this happening to others and it’s not an easy situation. While I don’t have a good answer for those being asked, I think it’s important for those doing the asking to understand what they are after.
Looking for a mentor can sometimes be fruitless because most mentor and mentee relationships form organically and sometimes never get formalized. Many people point to their mentors as keys to their success, helping them navigate tough times so others try to emulate the same situation. You can’t simply snap your fingers and find a mentor. It’s a relationship that has to be formed over time, through communication, questions, working together, and many other means.
However this does not mean that you can’t flip the tables and learn something about yourself along the way. If you are really on the hunt for advice, try finding someone who needs YOUR help. Chances are that there is someone else, without your life experience, that could benefit from what you have done.
I believe anyone can apply their life lessons to someone else either in the same position or about to be in that position. For example, a recent college grad may be looking for a mentor in the field they want to go into. They may find a hard time getting folks to return emails and calls and get discouraged. This is when they may think “without experience I am doomed!” When in reality they have plenty. Going back and talking to a new freshmen coming into college about their experience can be a way of reinforcing everything they themselves actually know. They can actually mentor someone else. Being out of college even a year and applying to jobs is enough experience to speak to a graduating senior to give them perspective on what they are about to embark into. This may not be a position everyone is in, but it serves as a good example I often use.
Another example is a current/recent MBA looking for a CEO/Founder mentor. This is a dream scenario I hear a lot. Instead of getting discouraged sending emails that go unanswered, they could spend time working with an entrepreneurship group honing the skills they learned getting an MBA. Finding Meetups with like-minded people and putting your skills and expertise to work just takes a little effort. You may not be paired up with the CEO of a thriving company, but you can surround yourself with people solving problems you are interested in. This can often lead to a peer group that is ultimately more helpful.
The truth is that people need help and mentorship at all levels. It’s not about the job title of the person, it’s about genuinely helping people. It would be great if a big CEO would take you under their wing, but it’s not the only positive outcome.
Take action by helping someone else. Start small and answer a question or suggest a solution. Over time you might find yourself being a resource for that person. I have found that being a mentor is a great experience and solidifies my own knowledge topics while teaching someone else.
In the absence of finding a mentor, become one.