Creating a Portfolio of Mentors

excerpted from The Ladders Newsletter - September 4, 2006

  Career Journal

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By Barry Zweibel

There is significant value in talking to someone with more experience. A mentor, or trusted advisor, has been there/done that, knows the ropes, sees the big picture ... and can speak from experience. Why doesn't everyone have one?

Wherefore Art Thou, Mentor?

It's not easy establishing a formal mentoring relationship with someone. Three fundamental questions that tend to significantly increase the stress level are:

  1. Who Wants to Be My Mentor? More often than not, we only consider people potential mentors if we think that they are available - that is, if we think they're likely to say 'yes'. Obviously, this approach severely limits our choices.
  2. Will You Be My Mentor? Many people find it difficult to get up the nerve to ask someone for help. Asking them to be a mentor can be even more daunting. This realization often precludes the question from even being asked in the first place.
  3. What am I Looking for in a Mentor? Most people don't really know. They tend not to have any sort of systematic process for matching their mentoring needs/wants with people who have relevant experience. Even if a particular mentor is a fabulous fit at one point in time, she/he may be less so as our learning edge shifts and sharpens.

It's understandable why so many mentor relationships get derailed before ever moving forward. Fortunately, there is a process that can pull things together in a more meaningful way. It's based on the counterintuitive notion that getting multiple mentors is significantly easier -- and substantially better -- than getting one.

Strength in Numbers

How is this possible? How is it easier to ask more people to mentor you when you're uncomfortable asking even one? And how are you supposed to even find this additional pool of people?

Enter the Mentor Portfolio process, which helps us readily identify dozens of informal advisors to connect with on a consistent and topically-specific basis. Here's how:

  1. Create a Portfolio Wheel -- Take out a clean piece of paper, draw a big circle, and divide it into eight equal wedges. (Shortcut: Draw an 'x' then a '+' inside the circle.)
  2. Categorize your Mentoring Needs -- Label each wedge with a professional development interest of yours. Examples might include: Networking, Political Savvy, Job Shaping, Negotiating, etc. Be honest with yourself - you know what areas you need help with. Write them down. Many people find it helpful to list specific questions they have in each wedge/topic area. Augment this list over time; each one can start a different mentoring conversation.
  3. Inventory Potential Mentors -- Taking one wedge/topic area at a time, identify people whose skills in that area already impress you. Don't limit yourself to just looking up the chain. Oftentimes, peers and friends -- even direct reports -- are naturally talented in areas that interest you. Populate your wheel accordingly. Then repeat the process, but this time, don't limit yourself to people you already know. Authors, as an example, are great subject matter experts and are readily accessible through email. So are public speakers and seminar leaders. Don't forget to ask people you know who they know. Keep adding names to your wheel until you have two-to-three names for each topic area.

Voila! You now have a portfolio of 16-24 informal mentors and advisors you can contact for subject matter expertise and advice.

Facilitating the Relationships

Whenever you are ready for some new insights, simply pick a wedge, pick a person in that wedge, and make a call/send an email. Say hello. Ask one of your questions. Interact around the response. And thank the person for their time and consideration.

To maintain good relations with those in your portfolio, be sure to add this simple request to the end of each conversation: "If I have any follow-up questions, or want to let you know how I've applied what we talked about, may I contact you again?"

"Of course you can!" they'll, no doubt, say. And you're set.

As your needs change, or situations dictate, simply spin people - and wedge labels - off of the wheel, replacing them with new ones. And remember, because you have an entire portfolio of mentors to choose from, you don't have to worry about imposing on any one person.

Creating a portfolio of informal mentors/advisors, rather than trying to create a formal relationship with a single person, can provide significant benefits while removing many of the obstacles that have been keeping you from obtaining mentor-like tutelage. No Herculean commitments are needed from anyone, including you.

© 2006, The Ladders

Barry Zweibel, MBA | Master Certified Coach, is president of LeadershipTraction. He can be reached at 847-291-9735,, or LeadershipTraction | Executive Intelligence • Accelerated