“I read this article that said I should have something to give the person I want to be my mentor.  But seriously – what do I have to give?  I’m a junior person at the company – why would the VP ever consider mentoring me?”  Mentors can be the most important people in your career.  They can introduce you to more senior folks, champion you to the higher-ups, help you to see things differently, and give you advice so you can avoid learning lessons the hard way.

Getting a mentor seems easy in theory but can be difficult in practice.  It takes vulnerability to ask for help and advice, and humility to be willing to listen.  Potential mentors tend to be busy people.  After all, you wouldn’t be seeking mentoring and advice from someone who wasn’t already highly successful.   Here are four rules to ensure your success when approaching a potential mentor.

Rule 1: Do your homework

Don’t approach your mentor until you’ve done your homework on the person.  The internet has made this infinitely easier than it used to be.  Google and LinkedIn can be your best friends when you’re seeking information on your mentor.  First, track the person’s career and look for anything they’ve written.  If they’ve written a book, buy it and read it so you can talk about it with them.  Have they blogged?  Written for a magazine or been quoted in a newspaper?  Find everything you can that they’ve created and be prepared to ask questions about it.  They’ll be flattered and impressed that you’ve taken the time to do this. Moreover, it will make it much easier for you to start a meaningful conversation that begins with depth, as opposed to saying, “Tell me about yourself” which will probably keep the conversation surface-level.

Next – seek commonalities on LinkedIn.  It’s not just who they know that you both know in common.  Look to see if you have similar volunteering interests.  Did you grow up in the same part of the country?  Try to find something to connect with right away.  People like people who are like them and who have something in common with them.  Expressing a commonality immediately connects the mentor’s past with yours, which will lead to a stronger relationship.

Rule 2: Have a Specific Request

There’s a famous quote that says, “If you want something done fast, ask a busy person.”  Busy people tend to be quick-moving, motivated and action-oriented.  They are usually happy to help, but can be irritated if you request “a coffee” or “to pick your brain.”  Several mentors I questioned said that nothing shut them down faster than being asked “to pick their brain” when the potential mentee hadn’t even done their homework first!  Talking just to talk will not be satisfactory. 

Have a specific mission or request before you enter the conversation.  Will the mentor connect you to people in Wisconsin in the compliance industry?  Will she review your resume and provide feedback?  Will he give you tips on getting into the Executive Development program?  When you have a specific, actionable request, mentors are much more willing to work with you because they feel they can achieve something in helping you.

Rule 3: Plan Your Follow-Up Out Loud

When you’ve finished your conversation, tell the mentor how and when you’ll be checking in or following up.  This gives you two advantages: (1.) it tells the mentor that you’ll continue to have a relationship with him or her and (2.) it gives you a powerful motivation to follow-up on the steps the mentor suggested.  The more you action the advice of the mentor, the more willing the mentor will be to invest further time in you.  The more you follow-up within the timeframe you set with your mentor, the more likely he or she will be to continue investing energy in your growth and career because you’ve proven you’re worth it.

Rule 4: Say Thank You

Like everyone else, busy people want to feel appreciated.  Be sure to say thank you for their time.  Even better?  When you say thank you, mention something you learned or found fascinating within the conversation to show you were engaged.  It will make the mentor feel important and confirm that they made a difference in your life.  Moreover, appreciation tends to be mutual.  By thanking someone for their time and the way they made a difference, they will be more likely to want to see you again and to build the relationship. 

Mentors and sponsors can make your career, but asking for someone’s time and mishandling it will likely make the person avoid you in the future.  Follow these rules and you’ll win friends, influence people and eventually, you’ll find yourself being sought out as a mentor in the future.