Start With A Little Flattery

This post by Bing Gordon first appeared in WSJ Accelerators, 5/23/13

Just as first-round football quarterbacks benefit from great coaches, budding entrepreneurs need mentors.

Unfortunately, the U.S. education system, even at university level, doesn’t prepare people for the open-endedness and scale of real life. Prodigies in computer science, analytics, marketing and design rarely have deep skills in group work and management. School and early jobs reward narrow focus — but after you establish a base of success, seeing the big picture is crucial.

Recruiting a mentor is an art form, like successful dating and hiring. Approach your potential mentor with a winning smile, and then ask your best question about one of their passions.

Lifelong learners, even the well-established ones, are suckers for new insights and fresh energy.

Jeff Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale, recommends simply walking up to your favorite professor with her book under your arm, and asking for “just a minute of your time” to discuss one of the ideas she has written. “What professors most desire is acolytes; teachers rarely get great feedback from their students,” Jeff says.

When approaching a potential mentor, start the conversation with a detail you admire, like that one product feature or that clinching assertion in a blog post, and ask for further details. If the first three minutes in that ad hoc encounter seem great, request an email or phone follow-up. If you ask a great question, you are likely to get that phone number or email address.

Not least, keep in mind a few rules for being a great mentee. Don’t hesitate to express gratitude when warranted. Tell your mentor precisely when and how his advice changed your outcome. And make sure to pay her kindness forward to the next generation after you.