How to approach a potential mentor

by Karen Adamedes

By the time you approach a potential mentor you should have identified what you want to learn from them and have decided that the person you are going to approach will be able to help you. (This can be the easy bit!)

Often we don’t progress to the next step of following through because we’re not sure how to ask, don’t want them to think we need help or are nervous about being rejected.

I personally am guilty of all 3 but I have also used all the strategies suggested below and they have worked. (Yes, all Career Tips To Go have been pre-tested!)

There are a number of different strategies you can use, depending on your intended victim (prospective mentor, that is) and how well you know them.

The worst thing that can happen is that they say no. Nothing ventured, nothing gained as my mother would say. As long as you ask professionally there is no reason not to give it a go!

Mentor Target 1 – Someone you know!

If you approach someone you have an established relationship with you can get straight to the issue that you are seeking help with. You don’t even have to use the “m” word (mentor!) 

Here are a couple of approaches:

I’m currently working on improving my presentation skills (insert your skill of choice) and I was wondering if we could catch up so I could ask you a few questions about how you (whatever they do)?


It’s been really helpful when we’ve talked previously, I have a few career options that I’m weighing up and I wonder if you’d have time for a chat/coffee?

These approaches cover why you want some of the valuable time and how they can help. If you ask in this way and do get turned down, usually it will be for a genuine reason, such as time or work pressures. Not because they don’t want to help you.

At the very least you will have represented yourself as a professional who is serious about your career.  If they do say “yes” it could be helpful for just the issue you approach them about or the beginning of a longer term mentoring relationship.

Like I said, you don’t have to formally ask if the person will mentor you. But a follow up thank you call, a second meeting, you start to build a relationship by catching up regularly – and before you know – You’ve got ’em. (As a mentor that is!)

Mentor Target 2 – Your Manager is moving on

This assumes that you manager has skills that you want to learn and you’d like a formal way to keep in touch with them.  (There are some managers you are more than happy to see walk out the door…let those ones go!) Hopefully you have a good one, but they may be moving to a new company or just another position, (I once had a manager resign 6 weeks after I took a job specifically so I could work with them…sigh!) whatever the move it means you lose the day to day learning experience with them.

Who could resist this approach?

I am so pleased you have this opportunity. But I’ll miss the chance to work with you and learn more about your approach to XYZ. Do you think you might be able to continue working with me on this as a mentor?

Formalizing your relationship at this stage makes it legitimate for you to keep in contact even if they’re up to their necks in their new role. They will remember the commitment that they made to you.

Mentor Target 3 – Someone you don’t know (well)

Let’s assume you have some vague association with the person and are not just randomly approaching senior managers trying to land a mentor. (This really wouldn’t meet our pre-requisite of knowing what you want to learn from someone anyway!) 

This association – whether you work in the same organization or business unit, or someone has recommended you to approach them, or have a work issue is common – whatever it is – this is your introduction to why you are getting in touch and will allow you to establish your credibility.

Once you have done this – proceed as you would with someone you know better, explaining why you want to speak to them, what you are trying to learn and how you think they can help.

Career Tip To Go:

People will be flattered when you ask for their help. The type of person that you are likely to want to learn from is very often the type of person that wants to help.

Just ask.


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