None of us can do it all alone.
Successful professionals usually rely on a network of trusted advisers or mentors. People who can help them to develop. People with whom they can talk things through. People who can introduce them to others who may also have a valuable perspective.
Mentors buy into their personal project. They understand what they are seeking to achieve, whether that’s in their career, family life, or community. They are on the lookout for opportunities to contribute their insight and guidance.
And the best mentor relationships stand the test of time. They grow as the mentees grow.
Let’s assume we’re in the market for a mentor. How can we initiate and nurture those relationships? Where do we start? And can we harness what we know from the burgeoning science of behavioural insights to help us build our mentor networks?
Behavioural insights, or “nudges”, examine how “choice architecture” (or the way options are presented) can be fashioned to subtly move people in the desired direction. David Halpern, chief executive of the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, defines a nudge as “a means of encouraging or guiding behaviour, but without mandating or instructing.”
It’s important to remember that nudges are for the greater good and need to be employed ethically. Nudging is not about manipulating people against their will.
The elements of an effective nudge have been distilled into the following mnemonic by researchers. This is “EAST”, which stands for easy, attractive, social, and timely. These elements can be applied to your search for a mentor.
Make it easy. Simplifying messages and smoothing processes are both elements of making it easy for people to deal with us. For someone to be conscious of something, they first need to attend to it. This is not as easy as it sounds in a world of significant background noise.
So the first challenge is to find a creative way to bring our message to conscious attention. First, we need to be crystal clear about what it is we do, the difference we make, and what we contribute. We can then work on finessing our message and consider how best to communicate it to prospective mentors.
Making it easy for someone to agree to our request is also about harnessing the power of defaults. Essentially, it’s about turning the question on its head: “Would you like to work with me?” becomes “Why would you not want to work with me?”
Make it attractive. Our introductory messages to prospective mentors may make absolute sense to us and be expertly crafted. The pitch should outline where you have come from, where you are now, and where you want to go. But do they engage people?
When we can drill down deep to the essence of what we do, we’ll also gain a greater understanding of why we do it and what it means to us. As a very useful by-product of this process, we start to recognise how what we do actually makes us feel.
Thinking is not the same as feeling. Thoughts can be justified, critiqued, examined, or maybe even attacked. Whereas feelings just are.
And tapping into these feeling aspects can be very useful. Social scientists (including Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow) agree that human decisions are invariably made based on “feel” rather than the cold, hard logic that we mistakenly believe has the upper hand.
If we articulate our worth in the form of what our role means to us, it can have a very strong impact upon others. This includes others in the position of making decisions that might affect us. It’s as if the meaning element is contagious. People wake up to who we really are.
They also remember us better. This is because they can more easily recall not who we are, but how we made them feel when they met us – powerful stuff in terms of building your mentor network.
Make it social. People are persuaded by the actions of others. We should, therefore, harness the goodwill from our reserve of supporters and cheerleaders. When we make this existing goodwill known to prospective mentors, we actively demonstrate that we are trusted by others. They can be encouraged to join this throng.
We can let a prospective mentor know that our adviser network includes other noteworthy people. This encourages them to share in the prosocial behaviours of others, and they will identify with this good practice.
We can even consider introducing mentors to each other, if appropriate, to share and leverage the goodwill across our network.
Make it timely. Consider approaching potential mentors when the time is right. Is there a point at which our own value as a prospective mentee is maximised? Think about what they might need for their personal project, as a key to gaining their attention. For example, if they have recently published a book, they might welcome a review.
Conferences and networking events where Q&A sessions are part of the proceedings provide an excellent opportunity, offering privileged access to those we wouldn’t normally mix with.
If we pose a well-prepared and insightful question to a presenter or panellist we have identified as a potential mentor, this can provide a platform to continue the dialogue after the session. The mentor will remember us for the right reasons.
Darryl Howes (firstname.lastname@example.org) helps professionals develop their networking and career management skills.