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It’s Not Her, It’s You: 5 Tips to Help You Get the Most Out of a Great Mentor

Having been on both sides of the teaching and learning relationship, I’ve developed some insight into what works when you’re young and looking to grow your career.

mentor
With Sarah Hoffman, Stanford Graduate School of Business student and fabulous NakedPoppy summer associate.

Here’s how qualified I was when I started at my first job out of college: 100% unqualified.

I had no idea what I was doing. Everyone else hired at strategy consulting firm Bain & Co. that year had studied something relevant like economics, math, or statistics. I had a degree in political science and brought little of value to work but a desire to learn.

I shudder to think what would have happened without Bill, the kind, young MBA who took me under his wing. As I floundered in meetings, he made suggestions on how to better make my points. As I panicked about how to conduct competitive analysis, he taught me technicalities like how to develop growth/share matrices and how to glean information from quarterly SEC filings.

And as I prepared for my first public presentation, he watched me practice and gently critiqued my attempts. I was terrified of public speaking, so he sat in the front row the day of my talk and nodded encouragingly throughout. In other words, I didn’t necessarily give the talk. He pretty much got me through it.

Bill and I lost touch, but I’ve never forgotten how much he and other people — my favorite bosses, best advisors, and other respected co-workers — taught me over the years.

Having been on both sides of the teaching and learning relationship, I’ve developed some insight into what works when you’re young and looking to grow your career.

Here are 5 tips:

1. Build a relationship first.

This might seem obvious. But, I’ve received my share of LinkedIn messages to the effect of “Will you be my mentor?” And I’ve wondered if someone, somewhere (maybe a college professor?) is advising young people to go out and find a mentor in this way.

Now, I genuinely believe that at this late stage in my career the least I can do is help younger people, especially young women, who are trying to succeed. Helping her think through business challenges, career moves or whatever’s on her mind can be a gift to both of us.

But asking for mentorship over LinkedIn is a lot like proposing on a first date.

Without fail, the successful relationships I’ve experienced have developed gradually. For example, a few years ago, a delightful business school student named Jarrett invited me to speak at a conference he was organizing at Duke University. I was happy to oblige, and enjoyed my time there.

It was only after the conference — once he’d built a connection — that he asked for career advice. Since then, we’ve kept in touch. And I’m always sincerely happy to help.

2. Make sure the relationship is (at least somewhat) a two-way street.

If your mentor is giving 100%, and you’re giving 0%, that mentor is either a saint, or is going to lose interest.

Make sure to give back.

For example, when I started my clean beauty company NakedPoppy, a young woman I’d informally mentored over the years named Jenna was one of our first — and most helpful — customers. Although we knew each other well, she knew her feedback would be most valuable if she acted as a true customer, so she went through the entire experience blindly, without my knowledge. Then she offered an invaluable gift: insight as to what she liked and disliked about the experience. It was all tremendously useful.

And it showed she genuinely wanted to contribute.

I’m not saying a 50–50 relationship is necessary, or even appropriate. If 90% of the giving is coming from the mentor and 10% from the mentee, that’s acceptable. The point is to show your gratitude by giving what you can — because everybody has something to offer.

3. Focus your questions on topics your mentor knows a lot about, and be specific.

Like everyone else, I have my sweet spots: leadership challenges, consumer products, marketplace businesses, customer insight, helping people grow their careers and the like.

So if you’re struggling with your enterprise sales strategy, I’m not your woman.

People enjoy talking about topics they’re passionate about, so find out what your mentor can actually help you with. Then, make sure you ask specific, answerable questions.

It’s difficult to engage with a general question like, “How should I approach marketing?” Yes, someone actually asked me to summarize all of marketing over a coffee.

Here are examples of specific recent questions from two different people: “Jaleh, what were the most important lessons you learned at Amazon that might apply to my challenge?” and “Here’s a draft organization chart I just mapped out. Any thoughts?”

These are not only questions I can answer; they’re fun and help me know my feedback is probably useful to you.

4. Recognize that mentors can provide insight and support, but they can’t fix your problems.

A mentor can be expected to help guide you — not make decisions for you.

Here’s a real thing that happened: someone emailed me asking, “What should I do with this webpage? You’re the marketing expert. I’ll do whatever you say.”

Now, I’m entirely willing to share my experiences. I’ll gladly ask you questions to get you thinking about the right things. But I’ll never outrightly tell you what to do.

Asking someone else to solve your problems comes off somewhere between presumptuous and lazy. A mentor/mentee relationship is a collaboration, so don’t lose sight of your personal responsibility to solve problems.

5. Know that the best mentor of all will be someone you can observe, with no official “mentor” relationship at all.

The best way to learn from people is to carefully watch them in action.

When I worked at OpenTable, I learned a great deal from the CEO, Thomas Layton. I respected his patience and ruthless prioritization — how he made well-calculated decisions, then let them play out over time. He didn’t panic when we didn’t see results right away. I, in turn, try to bring this mindset to NakedPoppy (in which Layton is now an angel investor).

But I never asked him to be my mentor. I simply observed how he worked, and learned all I could in the time I spent around him.

I never referred to Bill, the young MBA from Bain & Co, as a mentor either.

You don’t have to say, “Will you mentor me?” in order for a relationship to be rich in learning.

All you have to do is pay attention. Watch how the people you admire conduct business, from talking to clients, to leading meetings, to handling problems. Note how they treat the people they work with, and how they achieve their goals. Decide what you want to emulate and how to develop the skills to get there.

Because a mentor is anyone who has something to teach you.

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