Advice on Finding a Mentor

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jun 02 2022

I often talk about how much I wished I had a mentor when I first started BookEnds. But I think the truth is, I did. Just not in the way I think of a mentor today. I didn’t have someone I met with formally or regularly. And I doubt these people thought of themselves as my mentors. It was never something we named, but it was something I gained value from. And maybe, hopefully, they did too.

The emphasis on mentorship back then wasn’t what it is today. I’m grateful for where we are today. I’m grateful that as a leader there are expectations on me to be a mentor, not just within the BookEnds community, but in the world. I suppose in some ways when I started the blog back in 2006 it was as a sort of mentorship to authors and as time has gone on, I hope to industry professionals as well.

What is a Mentor

Based on my own experience, and confusion, I want to start by defining a mentor. I don’t believe a mentor needs to be someone willing to make a formal and regular commitment. Based on the number of wonderful mentorship programs now available, I feel like we’ve learned to define mentorship as a long commitment,  which can be overwhelming to both mentor and mentee. The truth is, a mentorship can be short-lived, maybe as short as one lunch or Zoom call. It doesn’t have to be a marriage. It can be one simple date.

A mentor is someone who guides you. They might talk about their own experiences or just answer your questions. It could be about the industry, it could be about life. It is really whatever you and your mentor define it to be. I think the only rule is that a mentor is someone you feel you can trust and you feel supported by.

Finding a Mentor

I mention the many wonderful mentorship programs now available to both authors and industry professionals. I have been a part of the program sponsored by AALA, but there are certainly many others. I’m going to ask readers to share any they know of in the comments. But mentorship doesn’t have to come from an organized group. It can just as easily come from your own efforts and experiences.

Connection these days is so much easier than it was 20 years ago thanks to social media. Possible mentors could come from your job, a professional organization you belong to. It could also come from someone who inspired you on Twitter or through their podcast or a friend of a friend of your mom’s. If you’re an editor thinking of learning more about agenting why not just reach out to an agent (or 5) who have sales that match your interests or regularly submit to you or your boss?

And by (or 5) I mean or five. Don’t hesitate to reach out to multiple people. Make a spreadsheet and track them like you track submissions. Take notes, keep contact information and find as many mentors as you can manage. Some will help you now. Some might be best for a later part of your career. Mentorship isn’t one and done. It is an ongoing process.

I know this all seems scary and intimidating but think of it as querying. As we always say, the worst that happens is someone says no or just doesn’t respond. While that might sting, it’s not even going to need a bandaid.

Keeping that in mind, there’s one very important thing I want to mention. Being asked to mentor someone is an honor. An honor. I will not be able to say yes to every person who asks, but I will never be offended by those who do. If anyone actually is, they are not worthy of the role. Keep that in mind when fear makes you hesitate to reach out. Also, keep in mind that someday someone will ask you to be a mentor. How will that feel? I can tell you, pretty damn good.

How to Ask a Mentor

When reaching out to a potential mentor it’s important to be specific about why you’re reaching out. Why them? Did they inspire you? Did something they say resonate? Tell them what about them makes you feel you’d like them to be a mentor, then tell them what you’d like to be mentored about. In some ways, it’s a little like applying for a job. If you’re asking someone to give something to you (their time and energy) it’s important to be clear about what you want. It’s also important to show you have an understanding of who they are and why you chose them.

Recently I received an email requesting an interview. It was very formal, they called me “Mrs” which I’m not and it didn’t give any details about what the person wanted to talk with me about or why they wanted to talk to me. The “Mrs” alone would have elicited a no from me, but without any details, I felt I was one of many on what could have been a bcc. I turned the person down but did explain why their email didn’t work for me and how they might do it better with others. So I guess, in a way, I mentored them.

It’s also helpful to let the mentor know what you’re expecting in terms of their time and energy. You could keep it open-ended and say that you’re seeking mentorship and are open to what that might look like for both of you, or you could be very specific that you’d like one Zoom call. If you really liked it, you could ask later for more.

Meeting Your Mentor

When you do get a mentor (congratulations) have a plan. Know ahead of time what you want to ask and talk about and, I’ve found it helpful if I know that plan as well. It’s good for me to walk into a mentorship meeting with some knowledge of what I’m there for. Are we talking about future job growth, balancing work-life, parenthood, or negotiation tactics? Allowing me to be prepared helps me help you. I also might be able to say ahead of time that some of those aren’t my expertise and I’m probably not the right mentor for them. Saving us both a lot of time.

Once you have a mentor the two of you need to make a plan to keep in touch. Will it be something that you do regularly through meetings and email or is it something that you can just do whenever something comes up? Periodic mentorship is something I still do with a number of colleagues. I’m not necessarily mentoring them and they aren’t necessarily mentoring me. It’s more of shared mentorship that could include advice on running a company, dealing with a difficult situation, or new software we need help with.

Mentorship can be extremely valuable at any stage of your career–whether you’ve been doing this for 2 months or 20 years–we all benefit from the guidance and experience of others.