How can a team of mentors enhance your career and entire life?
The tradition of mentorship usually went one way: an executive in the company would see that you were filled with potential, and graciously take you under their wing to learn directly from the very best. These days, with resources like LinkedIn and Twitter, you have more autonomy in seeking out and touching base with leaders from all around the world. So what is the right way to approach leaders online or in person? How can you get a mentor so you can receive the guidance you crave?
Dr. Ellen Ensher is a professor of management at Loyola Marymount University in California. In 2017, she received the university's award for distinguished teaching. She's published over 50 articles, has a TEDx Talk titled ‘How To Get A Mentor,’ and is the co-author of Power Mentoring: How Mentors And Protegées Get The Most Out Of Their Relationship.
I recently interviewed Ellen for the LEADx Podcast, where we talked about how to effectively reach out to the mentors you deserve. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: When it comes to approaching a possible mentor, should we aim for people at the very top of their industry, like the dean of a university? Should we cold email?
Dr. Ellen Ensher: I would first figure out who you'd love to go for and do some background research on them. But here's the critical bridge: then you want to figure out if you can find a way to “warm” connect with them. Using your example of the dean, I would figure out is there somebody in your network that could provide with an introduction to that person.
The thing is, Kevin, I have to say over the years, every semester I teach a class and I make my students get a mentor. Some of them have blown me away. They have done cold connects with all sorts of interesting people. One was the CEO of Tender Greens and he was so kind and he mentored my student. It's not that that never works, it's just that it will work better if you can take some time and do some research and figure out how you might find a warm connection with them.
Kruse: Do you think there’s an advantage to asking someone you already know to mentor you?
Ensher: I agree. Part of finding these warm connections like that is, and it turned out the Tender Greens guy had some connections to our university, so he felt kindly towards an LMU student.
I think LinkedIn is the best thing that's ever happened to mentoring these days, because you can go on there and search. The first I would say is search your alumni connections and see if there's someone in your alumni connection that could provide you with that warm connect. Look at your primary connections, look at your secondary connections because it's all gathered right there. We all have a lot of down, sometimes we have downtime so instead of just looking at more cat videos, I always say, go to your LinkedIn. They always give you a list of people that you can add, really start adding to your network but in a methodical way. It should be people that you know not just random strangers. Because you never know when that person might be helpful and maybe it's going to be their network or maybe it's going to be their extended network, if that makes sense.
Kruse: I tend to say ‘yes’ to every LinkedIn connection I get, just to expand my network. Is that a bad?
Ensher: For what you're doing it's perfect. I actually wrote a blog post called ‘Confessions of a Recovering LinkedIn Hussy.’
‘Cause it was this idea when I started that I was the girl who couldn't say, ‘no.’ “Sure, you can be in my LinkedIn!” But then I realized, I read an article by the LinkedIn CEO and he talked about, well really what you want to do is you want to have people on there that you know. And I found, for what I do as a professor and as somebody who's teaching people to get mentoring, a lot of the times, they'll go to my LinkedIn network and they'll say, “Ellen, can you provide me with an introduction?” And I have to know them in order to do that.
It's just knowing what you want to use it for.
Kruse: I always want our listeners to get a little bit better everyday. What do you think we should take action on today?
Ensher: I have this whole idea about connecting with people courageously and where a lot of people get stuck is when they are afraid. They think, “If I try to get a mentor or if I reach out to this person, I'm bothering them. I really don't have anything to offer. What do I say?” And so they just don't do it. I hate to sound like the Nike commercial ‘Just do it,’ but instead I'd say, just do it with courage. And one thing you could do today is think about a courage ritual that you can use for yourself. I have asked my students to write about this over the years. I have some blog posts, some people use poems, some use quotes, they use raps, they use songs, they use Amy Cuddy's power poses, which is a great example. A lot of athletes have courage rituals.
I have a mantra, a song that I do, if you don't have a courage ritual that you use before you do something hard, whether it's going on an interview or a networking event or a date, get one. That's something that you could do today is you could look at other people's courage rituals, think about what inspires you and come up with a courage ritual. That would be one thing that people could do that would be really, really helpful.
Kruse: Do you have a mantra? What is it?
Ensher: I do actually have a personal mantra. This is one that I say to myself every single day, and I have some other things I do when I'm doing something difficult. But one I give to myself every single day is, “I am deeply peaceful.”
Because I feel like what happens a lot of times in my busy day is a lot of things that get thrown at me and that could send me over the edge, and so if I just always say to myself—which is sometimes aspirational—I'm not actually deeply peaceful, I'm a mess. But if I say to myself, “I'm deeply peaceful,” it reminds me of how I want to be and it really, really helps. I do have a fun one that I shared on the TEDx talk which is a song that I sang for the TEDx audience. I don't think I'm up for reprising that, I think once is enough.
Kruse: Are there any tricks on what to say when asking someone to be your mentor?
Ensher: It's so funny because just this morning I wrote a script about this for my new LinkedIn class, so I've got this all top of mind. Absolutely, I don't think how you reach out really matters but I do notice there's big generational differences with that. I love to tease my GenZ students, who I love, and they're so smart but they hate getting on the phone. Email is great but how you do it doesn't really matter, the thing that you need to do when you reach out is number one, reference a warm connection if you have one. Number two, do a small ask. I wouldn't say, “Will you be my mentor?” I would say, “Will you meet with me for 20 minutes?” And do an informational interview. And then, get in front of them, build rapport, be really prepared going in for that informational interview. And then get to know each other gradually.
If you do those kinds of things that will help a lot. Also being clear about what it is you want to talk about whether it's “I saw your talk and I would love to get your top tips on speaking.” And this one's really, really important: Indicate to your potential mentor that you'd like to share ideas and be helpful to them as well. I had a potential protegée approach me, it was the first time anyone had ever asked me this and it blew me away. He said, “I have three questions to ask you in 15 minutes.” And he showed the first two questions, he showed that he had done background research and he asked really interesting detailed questions. And then his third question was, “And what can I do to help you?”
I loved it. He became a protegée and I will take his call anytime. Those are some ideas of what you can do. So small ask, get in front of the person, being respectful of their time when they're there. And then asking “What would you like to learn from me?”
Kruse: What should the mentor/protegée relationship look like? Who should set the framework?
Ensher: That's a great question. I always encourage the protegées to drive the car. I come into those meetings prepared. Here's something you can do because I know that feeling so well when you get together, especially if it's an assigned formal program. “How's it going?” “Good.” “Okay, do you have any goals?” And then it's awkward and sometimes people hit this weird wall. So here's the solution to that: Action learning project. I'm a big fan of doing community-based learning with my students and it struck me that what’s so cool about community-based learning is you're actually doing a project that helps someone and you have a deliverable at the end.
So now with all my mentoring clients that's my major recommendation, so when you get people together, brainstorm a project that you can work on. And it shouldn't be something burdensome. It should be something that maybe has been lingering on your to-do list. But you just can't quite get to it because you're busy and you don't have anyone to help you. Or maybe it's just something like a question that you've been really curious about but you need to bounce some ideas off of. So I would say if you can get together and ask yourself what would be something that we both want to learn? And maybe it's we want to do.
I had two civil engineers and they came together and they said, “We want to learn how to help community members understand about clean and safe water recommendations in certain areas.” Maybe it's going to be a conference presentation, maybe it's going to be doing some kind of service. Maybe it's a book, whatever it is, something tangible that maybe in six months or a year you'll both have something to show from it and you'll be better because of it. That's what I would say is the right way to get over that awkward, “What are we doing?” part.
Have a thing that you guys are doing and then all those skills like feedback, coaching, and active listening will come. You'll just be using them naturally but you'll be using it in the service of this project that you both want to be doing.
Kruse: If you could place that phone call back to a younger Ellen, what would you tell yourself?
Ensher: As you can probably expect, I would tell young Ellen to get a network of mentors but I would say, “Start mentoring others now.” I actually think it's never too soon to start being a mentor to others. I have an eighth grader right now and I've been saying to him, “You know what? You are a mentor to the third graders in your family group.” Because when you reach a hand back and serve, that should be part of your whole virtuous circle of mentoring. Get a network of mentors but also be a mentor to others right away. It’s never too soon, you always have something to offer.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.