The Secret to Finding a Great Mentor: Don't Ask to Be Mentored
“Will you be my mentor?” When I became editor in chief, I was unprepared for how often I’d be asked this question. It came from a teenager at a business conference, who waited around to talk with me until everyone else had left. From a first-time entrepreneur through an Instagram DM. From a podcast host, after an interview. From a startup founder, after I put her in the magazine. It happens every few weeks now, and I’m not alone in this. Many successful entrepreneurs tell me it happens to them, too.
We almost always say no, for reasons I’ll explain below. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The question these people are asking is, I think, a symptom of a larger problem: Many entrepreneurs misunderstand what it means to have a mentor.
Let’s start with the obvious. In entrepreneurship, we talk a lot about mentors. It’s part of our ethos. We put ourselves in situations we aren’t fully prepared for and must then be humble enough to seek the wisdom of others. And yet, for many, the obvious question lingers: How do I find one of these magical people? They conclude that they must go casting for one -- treating “mentor” like an official job title, as if it’s something someone signs a contract to begin.
This is where the problem lives. When someone asks me to be a mentor -- to, like, make it official -- I worry that I can’t provide what they need. It feels like a great responsibility, and I fear that, given my schedule, I’m liable to let them down. I know others in my position feel the same way. I’d bet you have as well. That’s why we all say no.
And yet, consider this: Multiple people have over the years told me they consider me a mentor. I had no idea! They never asked me to mentor them. As far as I knew, we were just staying in touch. I liked talking with them. And in turn, I have people I reliably turn to for advice -- maybe once or twice a year, often over beers. I’ve never called them mentors, but in truth, they are.
When you search for an official mentor, you limit your options. But when you cultivate a relationship -- a give-and-take, a casual but mutual investment in each other’s success -- you create exactly what you need. That could be an old friend or a new contact; maybe a current or former colleague or boss or professor; or someone you respect whom you met somewhere, or emailed with, or wrote to on LinkedIn. Maybe you stay loosely in touch. Every six months or so, you suggest coffee to catch up and ask them some questions. Maybe you don’t have one person like this but a whole cast of them -- people for different parts of your career. A leadership mentor. A negotiation mentor. A skills mentor. None of it is official.
Some people do have explicit mentor-mentee relationships, of course. If that works for them, then they’re lucky. But you should feel liberated from that narrow model. The world is full of knowledge, and entrepreneurs share it generously. That means, in essence, the world is full of mentors. And some of the very best ones don’t even know they’re doing it.
The best part? You can benefit from it all, and you don’t even need to ask.