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In our public professional lives, we like to play a little game. We pretend we know exactly what we’re doing. For the most part, that game is a smiling, hand-shaking lie.

Janis Machala
Janis Machala

Each of us is learning how to do what we do, to some extent, no matter where we are in our careers. For that, we need resources: Ideas, models, blueprints, but most of all, people.

Friends help us stay balanced. Colleagues help us stay on task. But for the stickiest issues, we have mentors — people who are a step removed from the minutiae of our professional lives, and a step above.

Mentors keep an eye on our personal development rather than our company’s bottom line. They have a perspective we value. And, ideally, our interactions with them cut through the games to the tough, personal challenges: We can be honest to our mentors, and they can be honest back.

Wednesday night I moderated a conversation about mentorship with Janis Machala and Mary Jesse, accomplished technologists who over the course of their careers have mentored — and been mentored by — dozens of people.

How do you form and develop your own mentor relationships? Below are eight tips that emerged from the conversation hosted by Women in Tech as part of Seattle Startup Week.

1. Take initiative

There’s someone you’d love to have in your corner, but you’re not sure how to make that happen. Do you place yourself somewhere where they make the first move? Don’t be afraid to make it yourself, say Machala and Jesse. If you’ve already met the person at an event or through another contact, invite her to coffee. If you haven’t, still — invite her to coffee. “Use the student card,” Machala said. “It works.” Emphasize what you’d like to learn and ask your would-be mentor to meet so you can hear her story. “People love to talk about themselves,” Machala said. “And they all have to eat.”

Mary Jesse
Mary Jesse

2. Come prepared

Everyone likes a good conversation, but no one wants to feel like they’re wasting their time. When you’ve set a meeting with a potential mentor, be ready. If it’s a coffee meeting, look him up, know where you want to look for intersections and advice and prepare objectives for the discussion you can stick to. “I’ve gone as far as to send questions ahead of time,” Machala said. If it’s your first interaction, make sure it doesn’t have to be the last. Can you connect on LinkedIn? Can you send him an email? Can you pass along something interesting you talked about? Don’t let the interaction end without exchanging contact info, and ideally, making an ask.

3. Beware of agendas

The best mentors want to help. But some people aren’t built that way. They compete, look for a way to exploit every encounter or they feel, in some sense, that you should go through the same struggles they did. It should go without saying that people set too deep with these attitudes make bad mentors. The good news? “They’re not that hard to spot,” said Jesse. They put up obstacles or hesitate to do something generous. They may be successful in all the ways you admire. But you’ll be better off without their help.

4. Look for chemistry

Mentor networks connect young professionals to senior advisors by career path or interest. But in the end, good mentor-mentee relationships can’t be calculated. “It’s like friendship,” Jesse said. If a sense of camaraderie develops, you’ll feel it click. From there, candor can build. Machala’s best mentors let her talk about anything. “They made it safe,” she said.

5. Build trust

Like any relationship, a strong mentor relationship works on trust. One of Machala’s early mentors was a manager who took a risk. When she was struggling to work with a colleague who made things difficult, he told her in confidence not to worry. He had a plan to remove the obstacles the uncooperative colleague put in her way. “If people knew he’d told me that, he could have gotten in trouble,” Machala said. She kept his trust and he went on to support her through much of her career.

6. Give back

How does a conversation become a relationship? With regular contact and an exchange of knowledge. Don’t feel you have anything worthwhile to share with your mentor? That’s nonsense. “There’s always something to make it a win-win,” Jesse said. Somewhere in the course of your convesations your would-be mentor shared an interest or a question about something she’s curious about. Know a book that informs the topic? Read an interesting article or heard of a group that discusses it? Send it along. “Executives are so busy, they don’t have time to look for those gems,” Machala said.

7. Be confident

You’re at an event, about to get an introduction to someone you admire. Or you’re at a coffee shop, waiting to meet that person for a one-on-one for the first time. You’re nervous. You feel inferior. Don’t. The importance of confidence is hard to overstate. “You can’t think of yourself as less than that person,” Machala said.

8. Don’t take things personally

This person seemed standoffish when you approached him at the event. That person took your card and said he’d get back to you but didn’t. Shake it off, don’t take it personally and don’t let it stop you from approaching the next person you want to. “It’s no risk, no reward,” Jesse said. “The people who succeed are the people who put themselves out there.”

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