With an pandemic and economic downturn, it can be hard to find the silver lining, so here’s some potentially welcome news—the pandemic presents an ideal opportunity to find a mentor.
I’ve been fortunate to have some amazing mentors-turned-role models in my life, including the late Texas governor Ann Richards to record producer and musician Quincy Jones. While some of my mentorships have been formal and official, others have been unofficial collaborations that I’ve sought out with executives senior to me. Whatever you want to call these relationships—from mentorships to more happenstance unions—there’s no question that they can be immeasurably valuable for career development and advancement.
Just as athletes would never compete without coaches, neither should professionals. Whether you’re feeling overwhelmed by a specific challenge or stuck in your career, mentors can help you figure out new ways to approach challenges and solve important problems. They can help you break into new professions, ponder significant pivots or fill in gaps in skills or experiences. When I built out my first investment fund, I had little experience building and managing teams, so I sought mentorship from an organizational psychologist. Fresh out of business school, I also didn’t know the intricacies of the technology ecosystem, so I sought insight from pioneers who knew it best. Mentors can be particularly helpful for early professionals looking to map out their desired career paths and for parents navigating a return to the workforce after time spent pausing it.
The most effective mentors typically have several more decades of experience than your own. However, it’s not necessary to go through a prescribed checklist. Get resourceful and creative in who you approach. For instance, while it can be useful to find mentors within your place of work who can help you navigate the firm, it can also be freeing to seek out people outside your company who will be able to provide unbiased advice, such as when it’s time to look elsewhere.
Once you decide who to approach, do not ask them to be your mentor out of the blue. That’s akin to asking a total stranger to marry you. Instead, ask for 15 or 20 minutes of their time to help you answer a specific question, which they are uniquely positioned to answer. This could be anything from “I know you successfully built a business that did ‘X’ achievement I’d love to hear how you did it,” to “I’m trying to decide between product and project management roles. Can you help me weigh the pros and cons of both?” Most people actually enjoy talking about themselves and sharing advice based on personal experiences as long as the time commitment is minimal and the preparation required is nonexistent.
The pandemic presents a unique opportunity to hold these discussions on Zoom, which is truly an ideal medium for a “get-to-know-you” professional conversation.
From the comfort of one’s home, it’s relatively painless to hop-on on a 15 minute call. Since video, a 15-minute conversation truly only takes 15 minutes (not 15 minutes, plus driving, parking, climbing up stairs, and buying a coffee). In addition, many executives who traveled extensively before the pandemic are finding themselves with more time available.
“In other words, executives have never been more approachable than they are now.”
Finally, during usual times, busy executives are typically not eager to meet new people in-person, where they risk getting stuck in conversations not worth their time. However, convincing them to meet on video, when they can easily end a meeting, is far more realistic. In other words, executives have never been more approachable than they are now.
The tremendous ease of Zoom makes this moment of sheltering in place the perfect opportunity to find your new mentor. Come to every conversation having done your research and with questions prepared so that the executive feels that you’re valuing their time. Further, come with a “close” prepared. If the conversation goes well, and if you feel like there’s a rapport, ask the executive if they’d mind if you reached out again a few weeks or months in case you have follow-up questions. If you’re lucky, after a few of these contained, well-planned out 15 or 20 minute conversations, the person may offer to advise you with more regularity. Ideally it would turn into a long-term relationship where you find meaningful ways to add value as well. After all, the strongest relationships are mutual.
Remember, you don’t have to use the word “mentorship” given the weight and responsibility that word conveys. But whatever you call it, it’s more accessible than ever during the pandemic. Go forth and Zoom. There’s never been a better opportunity than now.
Joanna Rees is managing partner of West, a venture studio working with purpose-driven companies to find and reach ideal markets. A longtime investor and advocate for women for boardroom diversity, Rees has served on more than 25 public, private, and nonprofit boards. In her career, she has been both a mentor and a mentee.