Question: Q: “What advice/tips do you have for finding a potential mentor and asking them to be your mentor?” – Melor S. in Silver Spring, MD

Answer: Mentors give valuable advice, introduce you to life-changing contacts and opportunities, and guide by example. It’s to your advantage to have a mentor, and some even say you can’t get ahead at all without one.

First, examine your career so far and where you want to go—next quarter, next year, in five years. Identify gaps in your skills and experience, as well as any you would like to acquire. Basically, create a career map. (Our Career Mapping workshop is offered several times throughout the year; you can click here for our workshop schedule.)

Which items on your career map do you want your mentors—yes, more than one!—to help you with? Do you need someone to help you find a job? Excel in your current role? Strengthen your network? Advance within your organization or industry? Or overhaul your career completely? Knowing what you want will make it easier to find the right people to ask.

Two obvious places to look for mentors are within your organization or a professional association, but you can look for mentors through alumni associations, religious groups, community organizations, and your own family. There are also mentoring groups you can find on LinkedIn and through a general Internet search. If you’re looking for a job and working with a recruiter, they can act as a mentor by giving you valuable job search advice.

When you think you’ve found the right person, ask them for a short meeting, and be specific about what you want to discuss. Respect their time and be prepared with questions and goals. Don’t forget to gauge your chemistry with them! You’ll be coming to this person for support and advice, so make sure you feel comfortable with them. Having similar interests—both work-related and not—will help.

If the first meeting goes well, go ahead and lay down the parameters of your mentoring relationship. How often will you communicate, and how? What topics will you discuss, and what should be off-limits? What level of confidentiality do you want to maintain? The last two considerations are especially important if your mentor is someone who works at the same organization you do.

Your relationship with a mentor should be a friendship with someone who happens to help you out professionally. Instead of thinking of them solely as the benefactor and of yourself as the beneficiary, think of the ways you can help them out, too—by giving them an ear and a fresh perspective when they need it, or even imparting some skills and wisdom you’ve picked up along the way.