when a potential mentor won’t respond to your emails

A reader writes:

I graduated from college nearly two years ago, and am looking for a professional mentor.

I’ve worked at my current job at a small nonprofit since October. After working in a similar but very corporate field for the past two years, I know this is where I want to be. A family friend connected me with this job opportunity, and I’m sure she’s part of the reason I got an interview. She has expressed interest in mentoring me, and help me navigate the working world. The only problem is she’s really hard to get in touch with. She recently started a high-profile job in the area, and is extremely busy. She has encouraged me to “rattle her cage” to get together for coffee, and my boss has encouraged me to do the same. I have sent her emails (generally every week or so, asking when she’s free), but I haven’t gotten any replies.

So here’s my question: how should I proceed? I’m somewhat frustrated, and part of me wants to give up on her as a regular mentor, and find someone else. But, I know she would be a great resource, and she knows a lot about my background and interests. If I should let it go, where should I look to find a mentor?

Well, first, stop emailing her. Emailing someone every week when you’re not getting any replies is going to come across as annoying. Yes, she should be responding, even if just to let you know that she’s really busy right now and probably can’t get together any time soon, but for whatever reason she’s not. You’ve got to take her silence as a response, and not keep contacting her. You could follow up once more in, say, three months time — but not before that, and only once then.

And I do realize that she told you to “rattle her cage,” but weekly emails without any response is just too much. Besides, if she needs to be emailed this often just to get a single response, she’s not going to be a great mentor. Someone who might give you good advice when you do happen to get ahold of her, maybe — but not a reliable or consistent mentor.

As for where to look for a mentor, there’s a lot of advice out there that advises approaching someone and asking them to set up a formal mentoring relationship with you. While I’m sure people have had success with this approach, I don’t think you need to set up something so formal — and actually, some of the best mentoring relationships develop naturally without ever being officially labeled.

Here’s what I would do: Start by looking for people you already click with — people you admire and people you have good chemistry them, and work on building those relationships. Over time, start asking them questions about their own work: “How did you do that?” “How did you realize that handling that altercation in the meeting that way would resolve it so well?” “What made you decide to revamp this project?” (Make it clear that you’re not asking in a challenging way, of course — you want your tone to convey, “I respect your work and would love to learn from you.”)

You can also start talking to them about dilemmas you’re facing in your job. Ask for advice, or run your proposed solution by them and ask what they think. You can ask bigger-picture questions about your work too, such as “What do you see in my performance or approach that I could do better?” Or, “How can I be perceived as more ___?” And, “If I want to get from ‘x’ to ‘y’ in my career, what do you think I should be focusing on, and what kind of path would be most helpful?”

If the person is receptive, that’s going to lead you into a mentoring relationship, without any formal labels. And if they’re not receptive, pay attention to their cues and move your efforts to someone more engaged.

I’d love to hear from readers about their own mentors and how they formed those relationships — have they been formal or informal? How did you form the relationship? Do you agree the best ones are often informal, or do you support more formal mentoring set-ups?

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