Finding your Yoda in a galaxy not so far away
A professional mentor is someone who is willing to share their acquired knowledge, skills, contacts and expertise with you. Successful people in any field almost always cite that mentorship is important. Even if you are a pioneer in your field, having a supportive network who can answer questions, give you advice or talk through career moves is almost invaluable. A mentor does not necessarily need to be in your field, but it can certainly help. Mentors really just need to be a person who believes in you and likes you enough to devote some of their time and energy into helping you out.
Often mentors develop organically, through relationships built during University, through families or other kinds of social situations. But it is still definitely possible to find a mentor if you don’t already have one in your personal network, or to make a mentor-mentee relationship clearer and more useful to you if you have a role model in mind.
In fact, the idea of mentorship is changing dramatically as the economy becomes more globalised and people are able to work with greater agility. The requirement for a mentor to be someone strictly local has changed. Plus, shifts in the technology we use can help us learn more about the specific skills someone has and what we can gain from them, before you even reach out. Here are a few tips on how to find and develop a professional mentor relationship in modern times.
The meaning of guidance has changed
When it was more common for people to stay in the same job for their entire careers, the idea of a mentor was more structured. You started out early, and your boss would “groom” you to eventually be able to fill their shoes.
These days, people are able to have multiple careers in their lives, change jobs more often and are generally more flexible - that means the traditional way of finding a mentor has also changed. However, even though you may find a mentor in a different way, you will probably still be looking for the same outcomes.
Forget about hierarchies
A mentor does not necessarily have to be someone who basically has a more senior position in your job. There are many ways someone can be a mentor to you, even if they are around your age and level of seniority.
Far more important than the job title someone has is the experience, skills, knowledge and connections they bring to the table - and their chemistry with you. Building a professional relationship that you can trust and feel at-ease in to ask questions will be more rewarding than occasionally meeting with someone you do not connect well with but who has a fancy job title. That’s why supporting and being supported by peers is an important part of mentorship - it could easily be a peer that is tapped in to the connections you need to make your next move.
That being said, the goal should be to develop a professional network with all types of people in it. Those mentors who have seen your trajectory through multiple jobs and can give you advice on your overall career goals, those who are willing to help out with very specific questions and those who might open a door for you.
Figure out what it is you need to learn
Of course, you can’t always know what you don’t know, but it’s still important to think about what you need from a mentor that an actual person might be able to give you. Are you looking for:
- Professional connections to jobs/clients/funding sources
- Advice on how to navigate difficult situations in your field by someone who has done it before
- Perspective and context on how business operates locally; someone who understands the ropes in your area
- Inspiration from someone you think has generally good character traits, personality and motivations
While it is absolutely invaluable to have a face-to-face relationship with someone, there is still plenty of guidance you can now get online. From blogs to podcasts to forums and chats and online classes, you can find very specific advice and general inspiration that you could previously only get from an individual mentor. If you come across someone in your industry that you admire, follow them and keep up with their work. Finding the right resources online can help bring guidance from real people - they’re just far away.
Once you figure out what you need to learn, you can start by looking through your online resources to find answers - and those answers could lead you to people you can contact to ask for more help.
Strengthen your networks to find mentors
Here are a few ways you can reach new people that could turn into a mentor.
Map out your existing network
There are often people we already know that can be a great mentor - and if you already know them through another part of your life, they are likely to understand you better than a stranger would.
Try mapping out your existing networks, including the circles of peers you run in, groups or organisations you are a part of and alumni networks you can tap into.
Join a professional network or association
One of the most direct ways to expand your professional network is to join an official...professional network. Pretty much every industry has an organisation of professionals, often with a small membership fee, that will put on events, host conferences, and spread information through. Look up your local chapter, and if there isn’t one, try contacting the organisers directly and asking what the best way to meet someone in the network is.
You can also try researching people online through their LinkedIn profiles or other bios, and approaching them that way. Hey, it’s what LinkedIn is for, right?
Join an incubator or accelerator
Programs like incubators and accelerators specifically structure themselves to provide mentorship opportunities with leaders in the field. They can be a great way to get connected with people already interested in helping.
One of the best ways to meet people who you can learn from is to show up to events their organisations are hosting. This is certainly easier for those that live in or near big cities, but if you research organisations that interest you and you don’t know anyone who does that kind of work (yet), showing up to events, meeting people and learning can open doors.
Mentor-mentee relationships are two-way. It’s important to follow general professional etiquette with any mentor, even if they start off as a personal connection.
Reaching out by email is pretty standard. Don’t ask for too many favours at once, but simply show your enthusiasm for their work, tell them a bit about what you are looking for, and ask for something specific (a chance to chat on the phone, a coffee date, specific answers to a question you have).
Be flexible with scheduling. Coffee or dinner doesn’t work for some people’s schedules who have long commutes or families to get back home to. Ask them what works best, and suggest a few options including meeting them near their work if possible.
Showing appreciation by following through
A mentor’s time and attention is valuable. One of the best ways to show your appreciation for it is by following through on their recommendations - whether it is approaching a contact they put you in touch with, taking their advice or reading an article they sent you. Of course, you are the only one who can make decisions for yourself and your business, but showing your mentor that you are considering what they say is an important part of developing a trusting relationship over time.
Passing it back and passing it on
If you’re receiving help from people, you should give it too. Your mentor of course has different professional needs from your own, but whether it’s showing up for an event their company is putting on, opening your own network up to them, or helping someone else entirely, mentorship is more than a one-way relationship.
Finding the right help for your business isn’t always easy
But it’s definitely out there! There’s nothing quite like an individual with experience who wants to see you succeed - but in the mean time you can get inspiration from Shopify’s Ecommerce University and our own blog.
Elkfox is here to help you grow your eCommerce business. Learn more.