The power of good mentors: finding them and making the most of these relationships
How do you find a mentor? What are the benefits of having one? And how does that relationship play out? Here’s my experience of finding and approaching professional mentors, and what it’s taught me along the way.
When I was studying my undergraduate degree in history, Professor Pippa Catterall was one of my lecturers. After I graduated I ran into her a couple of times but mostly I just sent her an email every now again to say hello. It wasn’t regular contact, but she was very easy to keep in touch with – always responsive and happy to hear how I was getting on.
It wasn’t until about 15 years later that I started thinking about writing a book. I had no idea how to go about doing this, and Pippa came to mind as somebody who could help me negotiate the space, having been published many times herself. I sent her some early extracts and asked her what she thought, and whether it was worth me continuing – I was only looking for a bit of advice at this stage. But Pippa got back to me straight away and was really enthusiastic, even offering to share her professional contacts with me if I needed to find a publisher.
Pippa’s positive response spurred me on in lots of ways and helped drive our relationship to where it is today, where I consider her a key professional mentor. She made me feel confident about asking for help, which I think can be a really hard thing to do sometimes – especially when you don’t necessarily have anything to give in return. It was a natural evolution to get to the point where I asked her to be my mentor, because she was already being so supportive and giving me lots of professional advice. I wanted to give this important relationship some kind of official recognition by naming it what it was.
Pippa has always treated me so respectfully and like an equal. But more than that, she’s given me lots of validation and confidence to keep going – which is important, because writing a book can be a slog! Getting into a space like publishing isn’t easy, and as an ethnic minority and a woman I have extra barriers in my way. But Pippa recognised and gave value to everything I’d done, and encouraged me to tell my story, my way.
The positive experience with Pippa encouraged me to reach out to others who could provide support. While attending a conference I met David Bodanis, who happened to be a published writer. I told him about the personal writing project I was working on and asked for help, and he said he’d be happy to look at my work. He gave me technical advice on structure, and was also willing to share some of his personal contacts. He didn’t have to help, but he did – he was kind enough to give his time when there was no obvious incentive for him to do so. We definitely need more people like him about, and our interaction reminded me of the importance of just asking the question: can you help?
A lot of people talk about the importance of finding a mentor who’s similar to you. Of course I can see the benefit of this shared experience – of finding a trailblazer or champion and learning from them. But this can be tricky if, for example, you’re a woman or an ethnic minority – because what happens if there simply aren’t people like you in the space you’re trying to get into? Or if there are only a select few – it places a lot of burden on them. So think beyond this. You have to trust in people. The life experiences that my mentors and I have had are quite different, but it’s never mattered. If anything, that breadth of difference can be incredibly insightful. What’s been more important to me is finding mentors who want to share their skillsets, open doors, and actually recognise who I am. I’m incredibly grateful for the amazing support and guidance I’ve received along the way.
Tips for finding and approaching a mentor
- Have a think about what it is you’re keen to get out of the relationship – is it to help you progress in work, to provide expert advice for a specific project, or to encourage you to set some personal goals? This can help determine the type of person who’d make a suitable mentor.
- Think about the people you’ve met in your life who’ve been supportive or inspirational influences for you – whether that’s a colleague, lecturer, sports coach or family friend. Could one of them become your mentor?
- You don’t have to be limited to who you already know – why not research some people you respect in your industry, connect with them and start an informal conversation or exchange? Who knows where it might lead.
- Just ask the question! If you work in an organisation don’t be afraid to go to your manager and ask whether you can get a mentor, and whether they can help you in finding one. And if you have someone in mind already, ask them directly – the worst anyone can say is no, but they will always be flattered that you’ve asked.
Ummul is CEO and co-founder of Capoeira4Refugees, RealtimeAid, and tech start-up Frontline Aid. She is an advocate for race, equality, female leaders and localisation. She is in the process of writing her first book.
[Photo of Ummul and Pippa]