By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

At this point you likely have heard that you need to find mentors, sponsors, and other support systems to build a successful career. In this age of boundaryless career paths, hybrid or fully remote work, uncertain economies, and all the unknowns related to the future of work, it’s more important than ever that you take ownership of your career decisions, which means not only figuring out what next steps may look like, but also finding the people who can help you get there. We all need broad, diverse networks of strong and weak ties who can provide access, feedback, and guidance. But sometimes knowing that you need something and figuring out how to get it are two very different challenges.

Traditionally, mentoring is built upon apprenticeship models, wherein someone with all the knowledge, expertise, and experience works to recreate themselves in another’s image. These relationships might last months or years, and the mentor would decide when the mentee-apprentice was “ready” to perform without them.

We do not think of mentoring in these same ways, today. Effective mentoring is a two-way conversation and collaboration, always focused on the mentee’s growth and development. The mentee comes into the relationship with their own knowledge, expertise, and experience, and may have multiple mentors at the same time. And, while mentoring relationships can last for years, they don’t have to. In fact, there is great value and strength in seeking out short-term mentorship around discrete goals.

Because mentoring is experience-based – you want to seek mentorship from someone who has experience or expertise in that area – it’s important for any potential mentee to get clear on their goals, first. We think of mentors supporting three main types of goals: short-term career (socialization, or how to be successful in a new role); long-term career (how does this role fit into my long-term career goals); and psychosocial (what are my values, strengths, interests, and other identities, and how do these affect my career and life decisions). As a mentee, you might think of your goals as falling into one of these areas as well. These might include things like

Learning a new role or organization (short-term career)

Identifying strategies for work-life balance (short or long-term career)

Creating a career plan for next steps (long-term career)

Filling specific gaps on one’s resume (long-term career)

Gathering feedback on EQ, leadership acumen, interpersonal skills (long-term career or psychosocial)

Reflecting on meaning and purpose in work and life (psychosocial)

And so on.

Once you have identified a specific goal, think about who you already know who has experience or strength in that area. For example, if you’re working on work-life balance, you might think about who you know who seems to do this particularly well. Or if you are reflecting on meaning and purpose, who is that person you find yourself going to for advice and deep conversations about life? You may identify a gap or two in your network, and that’s OK! That just means you need to do some relationship-building work.

One of the challenges with asking people for mentorship is that it feels like an enormous expenditure of time and effort on their part. And that’s because it is! Great mentoring is intentional, consistent, and ongoing. It doesn’t have to last forever, but there is a deeper expectation of a commitment of time and relationship built into the ask, and most people simply don’t have it. On top of which, many potential mentees don’t do the work, first, of getting clear about their goals and why they are asking. Think about how you would feel if someone asked you to be their mentor out of the blue. You probably would say no, as well.

Short-term mentorship lessens some of these barriers. Instead of asking for lengthy amounts of time and engagement, think instead in terms of no more than six to eight weeks. Be specific in your ask: “I’m seeking a short-term mentorship to help me identify some strategies for better work-life balance, and I’ve noticed that you seem to do this well. What I am asking for is four 30-minute conversations over the next eight weeks. I will set the schedule according to our calendars, bring questions and challenges I am working through, and ask for your feedback on my actions. If you have any strategies or resources that have worked well, that would be helpful, too.”

See how much clearer and specific that is than, “Will you be my mentor?” If someone came to me with the ask above, it would be an automatic yes, assuming I have the time in my schedule and the goal fits into my area of expertise. I know I’m not committing to the rest of my life, I have clear direction on what’s going to happen and why, and it tells me that the other person is taking responsibility for their own growth. That’s exactly the type of person I want to support.

And, you never know: a short-term mentorship could easily develop into a long-term mentorship. But it doesn’t have to. With a clear end point and specific goals to accomplish there is an easy out for both parties. Then you, as the mentee, can seek out your next short-term mentorship and continue growing and developing your career.