Advice, Community, Mentors

How to find a mentor by not asking for one

I’m here to talk about building mentor relationships. I wish I could write a listicle or “how to” document. The truth is that building mentor relationships is complicated. There is nothing more personal or nuanced. I’m going to try to put into words how we over at Switchboard built our mentor relationships, and maybe parts will ring true to you.

1. The mentor arrives
The mentor doesn’t announce herself. She doesn’t arrive on horseback and blow a bugle to signal her arrival as The Mentor. The best way to describe the feeling of knowing the mentor has arrived is to recognize the feeling of wanting to be led by the person before you.

As David Foster Wallace said… “[A] real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

When that person arrives, I feel a stirring in my heart and a desire to download that person’s brain. I follow my intuition, seize the opportunity, and figure out a way to do that that is fun for the both of us.

2. Call the mentor into service
There are a few things that I’ve learned about asking for a mentor’s help. We never ask them to be our mentor. This sounds counterintuitive. Sheryl Sandberg writes about this in a chapter in Lean In called “Don’t Ask Anyone to be Your Mentor.” And I think she has a point. Corbett Barr says something similar over at Fizzle. ” In the real world, mentors are usually organic relationships without specific titles, goals or responsibilities.”

We at Switchboard often ask people to help us solve problems during a defined period of time. Sometimes that means informal drinks every month. Sometimes that means having a jam session where we brainstorm a new feature or streamlined a process with a “think tank” of mentors (pictured above with Tom, James, and Jessica). There are many benefits to this approach: a core team is formed, we don’t have to play “telephone” in translating one person’s opinion to another, and there’s an energy of excitement and shared purpose.

We ask for unorthodox favors. For example, I once posted on PDX Startups Switchboard in which I asked if any local founders would be willing to invite me to their all hands staff meetings. Our team had just expanded. I didn’t know how to structure or lead a meeting. As you’ll see from the post, Cloudability’s Mat and Little Bird’s Marshall generously hosted me and I constantly refer to what I learned there.

If we find a mentor who is an exceptionally busy person (like Matt the founder of Metafilter, pictured), we’ll ask them to come in to PIE and give a talk so others in the office can benefit and we can hear the questions that other companies have. We also have many mentors who are younger than us (like Kaori). This is often overlooked. As Bill Nye put it, “Everyone you meet knows something you don’t.”

3. Listen to the mentor
It may seem obvious, but I’m constantly working on how to listen better to my mentors. I’ll vision how I want the time to go before we meet. I say things to myself like,  “I will ask questions that start with ‘how did you…” and ‘what did you…'” “I will listen more than I talk.” “These are the points they made last time I’d like to follow up on.” Larry King put it,  “I’ve never learned anything while I was talking.” Listening, truly listening without looking for the opportunity to respond, is a difficult art.

4. Thank the mentor
This cannot be overstated. Thank. The. Mentor. We do our best to follow up. Whether we work with someone over months or just one afternoon, we make sure to follow up with the outcome of our time together. This is in the form of a quick email. “Just wanted to let you know that the feature we talked about is live!” This makes mentors feel like their time is well spent and there was a tangible outcome to our work together. We send thank you notes and describe how they helped us and why we value their contribution. I once ambushed Guy Kawasaki at a conference and, for that hour, he was an invaluable mentor who gave us input that significantly changed the direction of our product (his thank you card and keyboard stickers pictured). I’ve found that no act of mentorship is too small to be acknowledged.

The full circle of our time as mentees is that we are now called on to mentor in return. And the best way those relationships begin is not with, “Will you be my mentor” but rather “Hi. Let’s hang out.”


Mara Zepeda is the cofounder and CEO of Switchboard as well as a mentor at PIE. Find her on Twiter @marazepeda and visit Portland Startups Switchboard to see how they’re helping the Portland startup community.