Want to level up in your career? Then find an informal mentor.
It’s no secret that mentors play a critical role in your career. A mentor provides valuable insight and expertise on everything from nailing a job interview to handling difficult work situations to achieving your career goals. Mentors have risen through the ranks and been in the trenches, and their vast experience can help you avoid their mistakes and emulate their best practices.
But what if you don’t work at a traditional corporate job with a formal mentorship program? How do you find a mentor to help guide you through your career?
Fortunately, you don’t need a formal mentor to reap the benefits of a mentorship. These days, you can make anyone your mentor through an informal mentorship.
So what’s the difference between a formal and informal mentorship?
In a formal mentorship, the mentor is more senior and experienced than you. You would have a formal and structured mentoring arrangement.
In an informal mentorship, you don’t have to go through formal channels to find a mentor. Anyone you admire can be your mentor and the mentoring relationship usually develops in a natural way.
The perks of having an informal mentor
- You don’t have to apply to a formal mentoring program—you don’t even have to formally ask someone to be your mentor!
- Your mentor can be anyone. They can be a trusted peer or someone you respect in your field.
- You don’t have to belong to an elite club or association to find a mentor. Many people find informal mentors through their jobs, friend networks, and even on social media.
- Your mentor will be more energized with an informal set-up. A formal mentorship can put a lot of pressure on your mentor. The mentor might not always have the time and energy to dedicate themselves to guiding someone’s career. But with an informal mentorship, you and your mentor can meet or chat as often as necessary, and find a cadence that works for both of you.
Who would make a good informal mentor?
A work colleague. Your mentor doesn’t have to be the VP of the company. A respected colleague or team member can make a great mentor and be a font of knowledge.
A classmate from college. Typically, mentees will seek out college alumni who are much more senior and accomplished. But a classmate in your year can be just as helpful if not more. Your peers will have a better understanding of what you’re currently going through and can offer advice that is timely and relevant. Also, look to classes or groups you’ve participated in outside of school. Maybe a member of your writer’s group offers great writing tips. Or someone in your hiking club has great insight into work life balance. They would probably make a great mentor figure.
Someone you admire on social media. While social media can often leave us in despair mode, it can also, surprisingly, be a great resource for finding informal mentors. Maybe you follow an acquaintance or friend-of-a-friend who’s making strides in their life or career. You can follow their progress and study what they’re doing to succeed. And the best part? You don’t even have to be in the same city to establish a mentorship.
Do’s and don’ts of developing an informal mentorship
Here are some pointers to help you establish a successful informal mentorship.
DON’T pop up out of the blue. A mentoring relationship is no different from a personal or professional one. You’ll want to build trust and rapport over time. Don’t show up in their inbox one day requesting a mentorship. Instead, gradually get to know your mentor and cultivate a relationship. Perhaps start off by regularly attending talks that they’re giving. Or wishing them congrats on their career wins. Then, your mentoring relationship can naturally grow from there.
DO personalize your request. When reaching out to your mentor, make sure your request is tailored to that specific mentor. In other words, don’t just pick your mentor’s brain because they’re successful and have something you want. Your request will be received more favorably when it’s personalized. Example: I really admire your hustle and work ethic. If you have time to chat, I’d love to better understand how you balance work and personal demands. Your mentor will be flattered by your ask, and will be more likely to meet with you.
DON’T make a list of demands. When meeting with your mentor, don’t give them a list of demands to meet. For example: I want you to meet with me every week; give me feedback on all my projects; and coach me on x,y,z. Your mentor doesn’t need extra homework! If you really want to find a mentor, make sure you respect their time and commitments.
DO prepare questions for them. Instead of making demands on their time, prepare some thoughtful questions to ask your mentor. This way, you’re respecting their time while also receiving helpful advice. Sample question: I noticed from your portfolio that many of your marketing clients are in the food and beverage space. How did you find your niche? This question shows that a) you’ve been doing your homework and getting to know your mentor and b) you have a specific question that is tailored to your mentor.
DON’T make it a unilateral partnership. A mentorship is a two-way street. A productive mentoring dynamic is one in which both parties mutually benefit. Make sure to take notes during your meetings. Actively listen to your mentor and pay attention to what’s going on in their life. What do they need help with? What could they use an extra pair of eyes for? Think of all the ways that you can support your mentor.
DO take their advice. An important part of being a mentee is to follow through on your ask and implement your mentor’s advice. After all, you did seek them out, so it would be worth your while to take their advice. Later on, email your mentor to keep them apprised of your progress and let them know how their advice helped you. Example: Thanks so much again for meeting with me. I took your advice and created a website and online portfolio. Since then, I’ve landed several clients and interesting projects. Thank you so much again for all your help!
An informal mentor can make a big difference in your career. Start planting the seeds so that you can grow a fruitful mentoring partnership over time.Written by JiJi Lee