Building a Team of Mentors: 3 Ways to Start

Change has a way of pushing people to take stock of where they are and where they want to be. Close to home, The Broad Center’s move to the Yale School of Management resulted in the need for professional transitions for me and my colleagues. Now globally, the COVID-19 crisis has led to far-reaching and devastating changes, including many unknowns for the future. It’s impossible for me to simply “keep calm and carry on” through the shifts – some significant introspection is required to move forward with purpose.

One of the questions I am reflecting on most is “who can I look to for guidance in these times?”  While I have always had people I can reach out to for help on a specific decision or an acute crisis, what I – and maybe many of you – have found is that I haven’t developed is a set of true, consistent mentors. People who I connect with regularly, who explicitly know they are my mentors (versus being leaders I fan-girl and ask a million questions of when I get a chance) and who can give me warm and firm feedback as I map out my next steps in my career and life.

I worry, though – am I too late? How do you actually build a set of mentors? Is it like dating? How do you ask someone to be your mentor? Did I miss the boat in my younger days? How do I pick up with people I haven’t talked to in years? Why would people want to do this for me?

As part of The Broad Academy team, I have access to some of the wisest leaders in the work. Back in 2019, which feels like a long time ago, I sat down with Daphane Carter, Chief Academic Officer and State Superintendent of KIPP Texas Public Schools, and a 2018-19 Broad Academy alum. Daphane maintains a formal, structured personal advisory board that she uses to grow her leadership and to guide her through major inflection points, both personal and professional.

Daphane’s board consists of 8-10 board members from different eras of her professional life. She invites them intentionally, seeking to curate a board that will give her different perspectives than her own without being married to the outcome in the way a boss would be. She gathers them twice each year, for 45-60 minute conference calls, and leads them through a structured agenda that yields new insights on the field, feedback on a current challenge and ongoing support for her quest as a changemaker.

Her approach is structured, efficient and impressive – and could also be intimidating. Yet, our conversation led me to a set of three actions from which to start building my own set of advisors. I aspire to have the kind of robust, regular meeting that Daphane does. Her most important advice – “just start”.

Get clarity of purpose. Get clear on your goal(s) for what you want your mentors to do for you. This can feel self-serving, but knowing what you need and want allows you to identify the right people and helps them know how they can best be helpful. Examples include:

  • Grow in core competency areas through feedback and coaching
  • Broaden your knowledge of your industry or others
  • Navigate and align changes in your personal or professional journey
  • Learn from the leadership of others who share your identity or circumstances

Identify who you want as mentors and spend time cultivating meaningful relationships. Look beyond what people do to how they lead as you identify, get to know and invite leaders into your circle. This allows you to go beyond titles or what can feel like disingenuous networking to a genuine curiosity and desire to grow as a leader. When identifying mentors, consider:

  • Who are past managers who were or continue to be invested in me?
  • What lens do I see the world through? Who do I trust that sees things differently?
  • Who can help me broaden my network or perspective? If part of your interest in reaching out to someone is to help you find your next job, be up front about this one. People are always willing to help good people, but it will feel – and be – disingenuous if your interest does not go beyond your search.
  • What are the benefits of a board that is more geographically grounded vs more national? Within the industry I work in or from a variety of sectors?
  • Who will give me candid, wise counsel even when it isn’t what I want to hear?

Reach out to them – even if it has been a while – and ask if they would be open to a conversation. In that conversation, frame your trajectory, your personal learnings or achievements and the questions you are grappling with now. This should not be the interview version of events, but rather one that helps the person understand how you have evolved since your last close connection with them and shows what you need moving forward.

See where the relationship goes. If you continue to want that person as a mentor, commit to consistent follow-up and check-ins to deepen the relationship. If the conversation naturally sets you up to move to step three, then feel free to skip ahead!

Invite them to be a mentor (officially). This takes a bit of bravery but an official ask allows you to be clear about your intention, demonstrates that you’re going to be thoughtful about their time and that you value them and the relationship you have. People enjoy giving help to those they see trying to grow and make an impact. Find a way to ask that is authentic to you, but be sure to communicate:

  • What you are asking for – a regular 1:1 call, participation in a personal advisory board structure, ad-hoc support?
  • Why you want that person to be a mentor and what specifically you admire or want to learn from them? Be concrete and help them see how they have or can help you achieve your goals.
  • What will you do to make it seamless for them to support you? Communicate how you will reach out, set a scheduled date, send them an update e-mail and questions you want to ask in advance. If they trust that you are going to do your part, it will increase their interest in supporting you.
  • Give them a way out. Frame your ask so that they can graciously decline without having to overly justify. Leaders you respect are likely respected by lots of other people. They may be over-committed, making their own career shift or simply not interested in playing the role. Ask in a way that allows them to bow out while still maintaining the connection.
  • Relentlessly follow through on anything you promise. Be meticulously prepared and on time for conversations, do not reschedule unless it is a true emergency and immediately provide any resources you say you will. Send a thoughtful thank you that shows the person exactly how they are helping you and make it clear that you value their ongoing support.

As I set out to build my own cabinet of mentors, I am committing to being confident in my motive, brave in my outreach and humble in my ask for support. I am also committing to starting somewhere. If you are interested in looking to grow your leadership, I hope you’ll join me in deepening your relationships too. I have no doubt that there is a village of people looking to invest in you and in the impact you’ll have on the world.


Photo: The Women in Leadership Panel at the 2020 Broad Center Forum, where I got to ask some of the women I most admire about their leadership experiences. I’m hopeful that some of them become part of my mentor-squad. Kriste Dragon (CEO, Citizens of the World Charter Schools), Barbara Jenkins (Superintendent, Orange County Public Schools), Sehba Ali (Superintendent, KIPP Texas) and Nancy Albarran (Superintendent, San Jose Unified School District).

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