The right mentor can be life changing. Emmy and AACTA Award-winning producer turned screen sector executive coach Ellenor Cox provides some practical advice on how to secure one and get the most out of this relationship.

Wouldn’t we all love to have someone we admire professionally set time aside to meet with us to provide advice and feedback, share their insights into how they achieved their goals and to cheer us on when we step up and out of our comfort zones?

This is the role of a mentor. Finding and cultivating the right mentoring relationship can be a game-changing tool for your professional growth.

How to find a good mentor 

“There are no magic words to get a stranger to mentor you. Don’t waste your time.”

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg likens asking strangers to be mentors to the behaviour of the baby bird in the children’s book Are You My Mother?. The little bird leaves its empty nest and proceeds to ask everyone it meets whether they’re her mother or not. The recurring “No!” is what you’ll experience if you ask a stranger to mentor you. 

Potential mentors need to believe in you already. They need to know that you’ll put their input and feedback to good use, and respect the time that they’re giving you. You need to have demonstrated your potential to them first. 

Don’t despair though if you don’t feel like you’ve had enough face-to-face time to impress your ideal mentor. There are various ways to get on their radar by showing first how you can be of service to them.

Foster relationships. If you’d like someone to be your mentor, follow their social media posts, share their updates, comment in a positive and constructive way on their blogs, engage in detail within social media groups that they’re active in, and acknowledge their contributions to the industry to your wider circle.

Many years ago, I was taught the art of starting my working day by sending notes of encouragement and congratulations to others in the industry. This gesture of unconditional support – without a follow up sentence suggesting ‘coffee or a catch up’ – serves two purposes. You get to bring a smile to the face of someone you’re keen to foster a relationship with, and you start your day from a place of gratitude and generosity. It’s a ‘win-win’. It’s also great practise in cultivating the habits of patience and consistency which are crucial for securing your perfect mentor relationship. 

Knowing what your goals are, both in the short and long term, is key. The more specific you can be about these then the easier it is to find the right mentor. A typical mentor relationship is usually 4-6 months (although some can last a lifetime!) so get clear on what you want to accomplish during this time and who would be best placed to assist you. 

Creating this clarity can lead you to realise that there are already those within your existing network acting as informal mentors that you could ask to formalise the relationship with.

Don’t expect your mentor to be your sponsor. It’s important to recognise the difference between a mentor and a sponsor and not to have unrealistic expectations. A mentor can give you advice, but can’t necessarily give you a new job or promotion, which is what a sponsor can do. Mentors can certainly provide key introductions, but that’s not the key objective of a mentor/mentee relationship.

Make the “ask”

Don’t ask for the person to “be your mentor” right off the bat. Instead, ask for an initial meeting, perhaps over video or an informal coffee. While you can make it apparent that ideally you’re seeking a mentor, set this introductory session up as a way to get to know one another. Perhaps have just a couple of advice questions on hand and a couple of practical offerings that you could do for them in order to show your willingness to give back to this relationship. Make sure you’ve done your research on their career to date, as this shows initiative and diligence. 

When it’s time to make the ‘ask’, here are some things to do:

  • Circle back to the initial conversation and reflect on what you learnt or actioned
  • Tell them what you know about them, their career and what they stand for, and why you think that this would make this person the right fit for you
  • Be clear about your goals and what would be an ideal outcome from this mentorship
  • Suggest a time commitment and what would be an ideal length of time for this relationship, how often you’d like to meet and for how long
  • Reassure them that you’ll put agendas together, create follow up notes and promise to take full responsibility for actioning any suggestions or feedback that they’d be willing to provide 
  • Spell out what you’re willing to put into the relationship and what you’re able to offer in return for this commitment from them, if appropriate 
  • Finally, make sure they see this request as an option and not an obligation. If they do say no, then thank them for their time and say how much you admire their career ppathKeep the door open! 

How to make your mentor relationship work

Be clear on the basics and then stick to upholding these commitments. 

Meet consistently. Figure out how often, how long and how you want to meet and make it consistent. Have an end date in mind as well that’s aligned with your clearly outlined goals.

Set an agenda. Before each meeting, send your mentor an agenda so they’re clear on what you want to achieve with their time.

Take notes and follow up. Send meeting minutes or action lists through after each meeting. This helps a busy mentor stay on track and keep their focus on how to help you achieve what you’re after.

Be open to feedback: positive or constructive. Encourage feedback that challenges you. This is the growth opportunity in a mentoring relationship.

Stick to business only. This relationship is not a therapy session. Remember to make and keep boundaries and keep personal lives and opinions separate. 

Be someone who is a delight to mentor

The key to attracting empowering mentoring is to mirror in your own life all the key attributes of what attracted you to your mentor in the first place. Are you respectful, open and flexible? Are you committed to growth and challenging yourself?

Here are some final points that will not only enable you to attract a great mentor, but to be someone who is a delight to be mentored.

Be up for more responsibility. Have specific ideas for how you can contribute in deeper, more expansive ways. Constantly be looking to stretch yourself and do not fear failure.

Be great at what you do. Practise a role model mindset of excellence, as this is the most important thing you can do to get noticed.

Don’t be a wallflower. Participate in all meetings and department or company initiatives. Volunteer your time and be prepared so that you can always meaningfully advance the discussion.

Promote the success of others. Your generosity and openness are critical to your success, and will be remembered.

Foster and build your support network. There are so many groups and guilds within our industry. Be an active and generous member. Learn from them and contribute often.

Finally, consider establishing your own personal board of mentors. If organisations can have a board of directors why can’t you! No one mentor can help you achieve all your dreams so look to surrounding yourself with a variety of people who do. Realising who these often informal mentors are in our lives helps us to navigate the more formal relationships. Our personal trainer, accountant, coach, mother-in-law… all these people are there to champion our case, and our dreams and aspirations, so don’t be afraid to reach out to them. 

An original version of this story was published in IF Magazine #203 November-December. Subscribe here.

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