It's the standard advice: if you want to advance in your career or find a new position, seek out people who are already succeeding in that field and learn from them. I can't argue with that principle. You can certainly shorten your learning curve by asking questions or by establishing an ongoing mentoring relationship. After all, you don't want to reinvent the wheel and learn by trial and error alone. But how do you approach someone for advice?
Some strategies are more effective than others in getting people to offer you career assistance. Here are some guidelines to increase your chances of getting the advice you need - whether you're looking for specific answers or hoping to establish a long-term mentoring relationship:
Don't come across as needy or desperate. In times of economic recession and layoffs, people are understandably concerned about losing their jobs or finding new positions. Even so, you'll never get results by "pleading" with people to help you in your career. We've all had friendships or relationships with people who are needy and "clingy." These individuals call all the time and make a drama of everything in their lives. They are "high maintenance" people, and you want to run for the hills to get away from them. And the same is true when people tell you how desperate they are to get a job … or how many bills are piling up. Dwelling on the negative aspects of your current situation will only drive people away from you.
Avoid the shotgun approach. Some people think that the more people they ask for career advice, the better. So, they send out an avalanche of letters, or make numerous phone calls, hoping one will work out. When I receive such requests by e-mail or snail mail, it's always obvious that the sender has used a form letter that's being sent to many companies or individuals. It's clear that they're using a template and just changing the name of the company each time. People will help you when they think you've given considerable thought to your selection and that you've done the research to determine who might be a good candidate to ask for assistance.
Recognize the mentor. It's vital to convey to the mentor that you're familiar with what he or she has done and that you find something about the mentor to be valuable. This isn't about worshipping or "buttering up" the person. But don't kid yourself: everyone loves to be recognized. And the mentor will be impressed that you have taken the time and done the research to learn about him or her. The mentor has the right to know, "Why are you contacting me?"
Convey how you will serve the mentor. In my experience, more than nine out of ten people seeking career assistance only mention one person - themselves. They want advice. They want help. They want certain questions answered. Their approach is "Me, Me, Me." This is a complete turn-off. If you want assistance, be of service to the mentor. Think ahead of time about what you can offer to the mentor. For instance, if the mentor is speaking at a trade association meeting, offer to help out on-site. If the mentor could use technical help (and you're a computer whiz), offer your services at no charge. You're asking the mentor to take time out of his or her busy schedule to serve you. It only stands to reason that you should be offering to serve the mentor as well. Remember, you're looking to establish a mutually beneficial relationship.
Make specific, limited requests. Over the years, I've received dozens of requests from people, who ask in essence, "Tell me everything you know." Most of them submit a list of questions, such as: What is the key to success in sales? Who is your competition? What trends do you see in your industry? These are general, and in my view, highly unreasonable questions. You must respect the other person's time if you want to be helped. Identify your one or two most important questions and then ask. You stand a much better chance of getting a response. Recognize also, however, that much of the information you're seeking may be found in readily available resources, such as books, tapes, seminars or through membership in a trade association. Don't make someone else take time to help you when the answers are easily obtained on your own.
Pay for the advice. If you want to speak with someone for an hour or two and get extensive advice on a variety of topics, consider paying that person to spend some time with you, either on the phone or in person. I've had tremendous success with this strategy when I needed help, and it doesn't have to cost a lot of money. Once you're a paying "client," people will gladly offer their best advice and give you more than you even expected. With one bit of information (such as getting a vendor recommendation) you can save many times the amount of your investment.
When you follow the ideas presented here, I assure you that you're going to stand out from the crowd. Most importantly, you're going to receive the help you're seeking … and that will allow you to build a satisfying, rewarding career.
-- Jeff Keller
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