26. Finding and Cultivating Mentors

Mentors are people who have already achieved some of the things you want to achieve. They are where you hope to be next year, five years from now or twenty years from now. And they are available, and willing, to tell you how to do get there, and to guide you along the way.

Mentors typically offer one or more of the following benefits:

• Information. Because they’ve done what you are trying to do, they have a lot of knowledge about how to do it.

• Wisdom. They don’t just have the information, they know how to apply it. They have a good grasp of the “big picture,” of strategy, and of what could go right and wrong.

• Opportunities. Mentors often know about jobs, grants and other opportunities that can help you.

• Contacts. This is a very important and underrated contribution of mentors. They often know lots of people, and they often know important, influential people. Your mentors’ contacts can be of enormous help to you as you build your career.

Mentors are probably the most powerful “success catalysts” around, meaning that they can help you reach your goals more quickly than anything else. The right mentor can literally take years or even decades off the time it takes you to succeed; and without mentors, you are almost certainly doomed to failure, or at least to time-wasting and frustration.

Finding and cultivating mentors should be a primary goal of all activists. You’re never too successful or accomplished to need mentors.

Here’s how to find and work with them.

Who Are Mentors?

Some people may be mentors for you in one area (e.g., public relations), while others may be mentors in another (e.g., strategy). Some might be experts in your particular movement or in activism and/or activist career paths in general. You could, and should, have as many mentors as possible in as many different specialties or fields relevant to your career as possible. You should also have mentors for your personal life: for dating, marriage, parenting, home ownership, personal finance, health and fitness, etc.

All of your mentors should not just have specific information and other resources that you need, but should also be kind people who like to help. In other words, they should understand, and enjoy, the process of mentoring.

Anyone and everyone who meets these criteria could be a mentor. Although many teachers, bosses and other authority figures are natural choices, you should cast as wide a net as possible. Some of my most important mentors are activists who are much younger than I am, but who have knowledge, experience and skills I lack. Others are people I disagree with politically, but whose attitudes and life choices I admire. I am grateful for mentoring from whatever source it comes.

How to Establish a Mentor Relationship

Below are examples of the wrong and right way to establish a mentor relationship:

Wrong Way: Ian is attending a reception at an activist conference when he spots the celebrated activist Jane Smith across the room. He’s always revered her and now, he thinks, is his chance to meet her. So, without thinking, he barrels across the room and introduces himself to her and says he’s always admired her and her work. She thanks him, but then he can’t think of anything else to say. The conversation languishes, and after a few moments, she excuses herself to talk with someone else.

Not very encouraging, but it could have been worse. Had Ian naïvely said, “Would you be my mentor?” Jane would have probably been surprised and then given him a polite refusal. You can’t go around asking strangers whom you’ve just met to mentor you, just as you can’t go around asking them to marry you. Both relationships imply a serious long-term commitment and should thus be approached gradually and with caution. Even if the potential mentor is someone who already knows and likes you and wants to help you, the word “mentor” can imply more of a serious, long-term commitment than she may be ready for.

Here’s a better way to get someone on board as a mentor:

Right Way: Another activist, Pete, studied the speaker list at the conference before coming. Noting that Jane Smith would be there, he decided to introduce himself to her during the reception. Before showing up, he reviewed her most recent writings and found an article of hers that he particularly liked. He gave it some thought and came up with some follow-up questions about it.

Doing a bit of research, he discovered that an activist he knows is actually acquainted with Jane, so he got that activist to agree to come to the reception with him and introduce him. When it came time to attend the reception, Pete wore a suit, even though he typically prefers to dress more casually. He knew, however, that the suit would convey an impression of seriousness and professionalism.

At the reception, his friend made the introduction, and Pete told Jane how much he liked her work and her last article in particular. He spoke in a relaxed voice and didn’t ramble on and on. (He had rehearsed what he was going to say ahead of time.) Then he asked his questions. Jane appreciated his interest, and also found the questions insightful, and so was happy to answer.

The conversation continued for a few more minutes. Then Pete said: “This has been a great conversation, but I know you’re busy and that there are lots of people here who want to talk with you. I don’t want to monopolize your time. But I’m working on a fair housing campaign that’s very similar to the one you ran in Cincinnati, and we’re having trouble getting the attention of the local legislators. Would it be okay if I contacted you after the conference to get some advice on how to do this?”

Jane gave him her business card and invited him to get in touch.

Jane is not yet a mentor for Pete, but she has agreed to give him at least some help, which is the first step toward establishing a mentor relationship. If Pete develops the evolving relationship well (see below), Jane could easily develop into a mentor for him.

Pete did many things right, including:

• Planned ahead (studied the conference agenda).

• Didn’t approach Jane “cold” (i.e., arranged an introduction).

• Presented himself in a professional manner.

• Was prepared—he had studied up on Jane’s work, and also rehearsed what he was going to say. Pete knew that every first meeting, and some second and third ones, is an audition.

• Demonstrated specific knowledge of Jane and her work. Many famous or important people are constantly approached by people who want their help, but know little about them or what they do. It’s a drag and it turns many of them off from meeting new people. However, by demonstrating that he really, truly knows Jane and her work, Pete set himself apart from the crowd.

• Was conscious of her situation and respectful of her time.

• Made his request only after a friendly dialogue was established.

• Made an appropriate request—i.e., one that was both within her field of expertise, and not too time-consuming.

Oh, and by the way, Pete took a similar strategic approach with several other VIPs who were attending the conference and as a result wound up with several potential mentors.

Working with Your Mentors

You want to stay in regular touch with your mentors. That could mean once a month, once every six months, once every year or even less often, depending on who the mentor is and the specific nature of your relationship with him. Or, you might consult your mentor intensively during a specific project that lasts a week or a month, and not for a while after that.

But regularly. What you don’t want to do is drop out of sight and then, when a crisis emerges, contact your mentor frantically for advice. If your mentor is nice, he will help you out, but he might also feel used, so send regular updates, preferably containing good or at least useful news. E-mail works well for this.

You want your interactions to be meaningful—above all, you don’t want the mentor to feel you’ve wasted his time. That means you have a defined goal for each interaction—be it over the phone, or in person at his office, or over coffee. It also means you have done all the thinking and preparation you need to do ahead of time, so that the interaction is efficient.

And you need to be appreciative. Thank-you notes are required after every meaningful exchange or bit of assistance your mentor gives you—and not a dashed-off thank-you note, but a carefully written one. Note
that a handwritten note or card is often more meaningful and valued than an e-mail, but an e-mail is way better than nothing.

And, of course, you should always seek to reciprocate. Even though you may feel that you have little to offer your mentor, that is probably not the case. Sooner or later, you’ll see a newspaper article, or get some information at a meeting, or make a contact, that your mentor will find useful. Be sure to get that information or contact to him. Or, you may be able to assist the mentor in some difficult project he’s involved with. Even if your contribution is just doing some typing or picking up the bagels and coffee for a meeting, he will appreciate your willingness to reciprocate.

Mentoring Others

Mentoring is, as I’ll discuss in Chapter 28, one of the most fantastic growth experiences you can have, which is why a lot of even very busy people welcome the opportunity to mentor a few select protégés. It’s also why you should also be a mentor to others.

Yes, you should mentor! Regardless of how inexperienced or unaccomplished as you may feel, there are still plenty of people who would benefit from your wisdom and guidance. If someone comes to you seeking advice—and it will happen sooner or later, especially if you work on your mission, time, and fear and relationship management—and you feel comfortable with them and their request, by all means mentor them.

If you don’t want to wait until someone approaches you, you can always join a mentor program at a nonprofit organization or charity. Many youth-oriented programs and schools have mentor programs, for example. Or you could start a mentor program within your movement or activist organization. There is probably no activist organization that wouldn’t benefit from having a mentor program in place.

Don’t dither on this: the one thing almost every mentor eventually winds up saying is that they feel they got more out of the relationship than the person they were “helping.”