About 12 years ago I reconnected with a professor who’d made an impact on me while in college. She was a real writer. One who actually wrote magazine articles and made money doing so. She was what I wanted to become.
One of the best moments of my college experience was when she invited our small magazine writing class out to her home to see her office and her desk – a wooden door propped on a couple of filing cabinets. Seeing her office made the job that I’d always dreamed of doing seem, well, doable.
Fast forward about ten years and I was indeed doing the job, but with mixed success. I wasn’t selling as many magazine pieces as I wanted and was trying to figure out why. The experience made me think of Mrs. Bowman and on a whim, I sent her a note just to say that I’d appreciated all that I learned from her.
That note changed both of our lives. She was she grateful to know that her work made a difference in my life and then she gave me a gift. She offered to coach me. She became a mentor and a friend. The relationship made all the difference.
The truly successful people in this world – both at home as leaders of their families and at work – have watched and learned and listened to others. They’ve found people to nurture their spark, show them the way, and set them free to make their own mistakes.
Sally-Jo did that for me. We labored over query letters, sometimes so bad that I was embarrassed to show her. But, she never judged. She just guided me and showed me a different way. She called quickly when I was in despair and let it ride when I was confused and finding my own method. The impact she’s had on my career and in my life is immeasurable.
I’ve had other mentors too, people who kept my dream alive by living their own. People who took time to answer my questions, offer free and honest advice, support me when I wasn’t sure if I was on track. I am better because people took time and gave me space to help me learn my way.
While our coaching relationship has shifted and changed over the years, Sally-Jo’s knowledge, wisdom and support is still integral to my career. One reason I think it has worked so well is because we set out some loose guidelines that framed how we worked together. Here are four that might also help you.
Guidelines for working with a mentor
1. Don’t force the relationship, but be clear about what you want. To some degree, a successful mentor relationship is built when two people like each other. One has important, advanced information and insight, the other is willing to listen and work like a dog to use that insight. When you find someone you happen to like and respect in your area of interest, who also happens to have the knowledge you need, foster that relationship. Ask them formally if they’d be willing to mentor or coach you. Then, discuss what that would look like as far as hours and information and how the two of you would work together. If both of you are in agreement, then allow the relationship to develop organically from there.
2. Don’t waste her time. Once you have someone willing to mentor you, don’t waste her time. Do what you say you are going to do. Work to apply her knowledge, to try out the tips she offers. Be accountable and open about your failures so your mentor can help you navigate through them and learn about why you failed in the first place. Trust her more than you argue with her. With the right mentor you have a built-in fan club. Don’t blow it by playing small. Work hard, try new things, operate on faith and commit to the process so you can take all her knowledge and wisdom and make it your own.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask the big dumb question. Come on now, we all know that there are stupid questions like asking how much something costs in the dollar store. Yes, I’ve done that. In fact, I’ve asked most of the big, dumb questions. Yet, many of those dumb questions actually resulted in big, surprising, helpful answers. Always ask what you need to know, whether it sounds stupid or not, but then give yourself plenty of time to integrate the knowledge into practice.
4. Be grateful. It’s a sweet thing in life to have somebody on your side, cheering for you along the road to your biggest dream. It’s an amazing gift to have someone simply dedicating what little time they have to make you better. Even if you disagree with what you learn or hear from your mentor, be grateful for the time and energy and information she offers up. Respect her and the relationship you are building together. Nobody has to help you. It’s only because she believes in you that she’s even willing to try. Show gratitude. Be appreciative. Accept the gift. Then, do great things with it.