Mentoring: Successful People Ask for It

What is a mentor? 

Every worthwhile discussion about mentoring and how to ask someone to be your mentor starts with that simple question.

A mentor is someone who shortens your professional learning curve by sharing advice based on their experience facing situations you are facing or will face down the road. The right mentor can help you become a seasoned leader, faster.

How To Ask Someone To Be Your Mentor

Before considering the “how” it’s important to cover the “who” — and that starts with knowing what to look for in a mentor.

To gain the maximum benefit from a potential mentoring relationship, you want to identify someone who holds a position you aspire to obtain. Perhaps you are a manager but want to move into senior leadership. Or maybe you are an individual contributor and want to manage others.

Look for someone, not whom you must impress to excel in your current position but someone whom you respect in a role or in positions that you are interested in exploring. Or if you are already in a position of leadership and want to grow further in your ability to inspire and motivate others, identify a leader in your position at a different company or a peer within your own. 

Once you have that person in mind, asking to be mentored by them is a much more natural conversation. Have your purpose clear in your mind. Reach out to the person and express a desire to learn from them in a structured way. That last point is critical and what makes or breaks a successful mentor relationship.

Marks of a Successful Mentor Relationship

If your company does not have a formal mentoring program, following a few best practices will help your time with your mentor be more than merely a social relationship. 

  • Have an agenda. Small talk is great, but it won’t help you become a better leader. Every mentoring session should begin with an agenda that has been determined and shared with all parties involved beforehand. This will keep your time structured and help you avoid mere small talk.
  • Have structured questions. The worst mentor experiences are so because of a lack of structure. Develop specific questions for your mentor ahead of time about real life scenarios you have faced or are facing for which you desire guidance. Perhaps it’s a difficult conversation with a direct report. Or knowing how to handle an employee who is in the wrong role or is not a good fit with the culture of the organization. Briefly explain your scenario and ask your mentor how he or she would handle it.
  • Have a defined timeframe. Upfront, set how long your meetings will be and how many times you’ll meet. Setting a definite ending point will force you to maximize the time you have with your mentor and give the mentor confidence in what exactly they are committing to. 

Remember that the best mentor programs speed up the learning process for leaders. If life is the oven in which leaders are forged, mentorship programs focused on sharing advice based on real life experience are pressure cookers. In those relationships, leaders can learn lessons without having to live them through themselves.

During my best mentoring experience, I asked the president of a company if we could meet quarterly for a defined period of time. Each time we met, I would supply four or five subjects on which I wanted advice. I sent those topics to my mentor ahead of time and we could discuss them when we met. These were things I struggled with as a young leader. Through our discussions, I learned that my mentor had faced those same challenges and was able to learn from his mistakes. 

Our time together made me a better leader, and it reverberated to those I was leading as well.

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