when a potential mentor won’t respond to your emails

A reader writes:

I graduated from college nearly two years ago, and am looking for a professional mentor.

I’ve worked at my current job at a small nonprofit since October. After working in a similar but very corporate field for the past two years, I know this is where I want to be. A family friend connected me with this job opportunity, and I’m sure she’s part of the reason I got an interview. She has expressed interest in mentoring me, and help me navigate the working world. The only problem is she’s really hard to get in touch with. She recently started a high-profile job in the area, and is extremely busy. She has encouraged me to “rattle her cage” to get together for coffee, and my boss has encouraged me to do the same. I have sent her emails (generally every week or so, asking when she’s free), but I haven’t gotten any replies.

So here’s my question: how should I proceed? I’m somewhat frustrated, and part of me wants to give up on her as a regular mentor, and find someone else. But, I know she would be a great resource, and she knows a lot about my background and interests. If I should let it go, where should I look to find a mentor?

Well, first, stop emailing her. Emailing someone every week when you’re not getting any replies is going to come across as annoying. Yes, she should be responding, even if just to let you know that she’s really busy right now and probably can’t get together any time soon, but for whatever reason she’s not. You’ve got to take her silence as a response, and not keep contacting her. You could follow up once more in, say, three months time — but not before that, and only once then.

And I do realize that she told you to “rattle her cage,” but weekly emails without any response is just too much. Besides, if she needs to be emailed this often just to get a single response, she’s not going to be a great mentor. Someone who might give you good advice when you do happen to get ahold of her, maybe — but not a reliable or consistent mentor.

As for where to look for a mentor, there’s a lot of advice out there that advises approaching someone and asking them to set up a formal mentoring relationship with you. While I’m sure people have had success with this approach, I don’t think you need to set up something so formal — and actually, some of the best mentoring relationships develop naturally without ever being officially labeled.

Here’s what I would do: Start by looking for people you already click with — people you admire and people you have good chemistry them, and work on building those relationships. Over time, start asking them questions about their own work: “How did you do that?” “How did you realize that handling that altercation in the meeting that way would resolve it so well?” “What made you decide to revamp this project?” (Make it clear that you’re not asking in a challenging way, of course — you want your tone to convey, “I respect your work and would love to learn from you.”)

You can also start talking to them about dilemmas you’re facing in your job. Ask for advice, or run your proposed solution by them and ask what they think. You can ask bigger-picture questions about your work too, such as “What do you see in my performance or approach that I could do better?” Or, “How can I be perceived as more ___?” And, “If I want to get from ‘x’ to ‘y’ in my career, what do you think I should be focusing on, and what kind of path would be most helpful?”

If the person is receptive, that’s going to lead you into a mentoring relationship, without any formal labels. And if they’re not receptive, pay attention to their cues and move your efforts to someone more engaged.

I’d love to hear from readers about their own mentors and how they formed those relationships — have they been formal or informal? How did you form the relationship? Do you agree the best ones are often informal, or do you support more formal mentoring set-ups?

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. Josh S*

    I like this advice. A lot. Every time I’ve tried to arrange a ‘formal’ mentoring situation, it hasn’t gone well. Either it falls by the wayside as the mentor is too busy, or the person isn’t really good at understanding situations/giving advice, or they have had an impression that “mentor” means “My mentee wants me to find them a new job.”

    Good Lord, what I wouldn’t give for regular communication with someone who exposes me to new ideas, gives me challenging and thought-provoking books/articles to read, pushes me to stretch my comfort zone and constantly do better, and with whom I can share situations and ask advice!

  2. Sascha*

    I just recently started a mentor relationship with an administrator/professor at my university, and we have met twice in the past 8 months. Twice. Because we are both extremely busy. I have never had a mentor so I don’t have much experience with it, but I imagine a meeting every few months or so is normal. Our relationship came about because I often worked with her and we have a lot in common (both English nerds!) and just enjoyed talking with each other. She is about 15 years older than me and further along in her career, with a similar career path.

    I don’t know what constitutes a formal mentoring relationship, but I imagine it’s something like, there are regularly scheduled meetings and conversation topics. I would not like this set-up, but I’m a person who doesn’t like to be highly scheduled. That might work for others, though. I like my mentoring relationship because it’s very organic and fluid – I know that she is there if I just need to talk, be that in person, email, or phone.

    1. AB*

      Sascha, you don’t have to have regularly scheduled meetings and conversation topics in a formal mentoring relationship. To me, what makes a mentoring relationship formal is just calling it that.

      The way it works when I’m a mentor (and how I acted with my mentor as well) is this: the person who wants to be mentored asks someone to be his/her mentor, explaining what he/she wants to obtain from the relationship, and proposing to meet from time to time. Then if the mentor accepts, you become responsible for suggesting a date for the next meeting and working around the mentor’s calendar, as well as sending an agenda in advance about what you want to discuss, following-up to inform the mentor how things went when given advice, etc. That’s it.

  3. AB*

    Oh! I’m someone with whom formal mentoring worked very well, so I’ll share my story.

    I have 15 years of experience in my field, and receive lots of requests for formal and informal mentoring. Only recently, after seeing how well 2 mentees were doing at work, I realized I should be taking advantage of the same, finding a mentor myself.

    I wanted someone from my own company that could help me better understand the culture and politics of the organization. So I approached a manager that had been with the company for more than 15 years and I had briefly met in some meetings. I sent her an email respectfully asking if she could be my mentor, explaining that I’d prepare some topics to discuss and send beforehand with an invitation to meet 2 or 3 times a month at her convenience.

    (I knew her enough to know she would not be unhappy with the request, and made it clear that I’d understand if she didn’t have the time.)

    She immediately accepted, and I started to schedule a meeting for us every week or two. It was an amazing experience, I learned a lot and got another reference that I can use in future job searches, as she ended up becoming acquainted with the quality of my work in the process.

    What I think is positive about a formal mentoring relationship (speaking both as a mentor and as a mentee): people feel a sense of accomplishment when they see a formal mentee grow their careers based on advice received from them. I feel like I care more about the results of my formal mentees than I do for my informal ones. Not that I’m not willing to help the latter, but it’s just that the fact that former are willing to formally acknowledged my contributions — even if just between of us, with nothing going public – makes me feel even more motivated to help them learn and grow.

    I think the same thing happened my mentor, she felt proud that I had formally chosen her, and for that reason she was always happy to make time in her calendar to meet. Now I only wish I could go back in time and had started doing it much sooner in my career!

  4. Jamie*

    The formal set up would go against my nature – it would feel forced and like pressure to me – but I’ve been on both the mentor and mentee side of this kind of thing that just organically sprung out of relationships at work.

    My first boss – there could have been no greater mentor. And there wasn’t one sit down where he passed along deep knowledge – just a million little teaching moments where he taught me how to grab authority, how to deal with all kinds of difficult people and still get sh*t done – I could write a top ten list of everything I owe him for. I can honestly say my career wouldn’t be anywhere near what it is without his influence.

    So when the tables turned and over the last few years some people came to me it was nice to be able to help them navigate the sometimes choppy waters. And sappy as it sounds it’s nice seeing them come into their own.

    If someone had come to me and asked me to formally be their mentor though, I would have no idea what that would mean.

    1. Josh S*

      I could write a top ten list of everything I owe him for.

      Just a thought — you should do this and send it to him. I bet it would make his week.

      1. Jamie*

        I sent him a thank you note once, when I made Director – he’s since told me (a couple of times) that he keeps it and pulls it out every now and then when he needs to be reminded that not everyone sucks.

        That’s about as warm and fuzzy as people in manufacturing tend to get. :)

  5. badger_doc*

    For me, finding my mentor was a very informal experience. I started working in a research lab as an undergraduate in college and was assigned to a post-doc about 6 years older than me. She took me under her wing, had me read papers, taught me how to perform experiments and we quickly formed a bond from working together. We both came from similar educational backgrounds, although from different countries (she got her education in the UK). I earned her respect by working my butt off for her, catching a couple mistakes and bringing them to her attention, and staying ahead of the learning curve. Fast forward 8 years later after I finished grad school and had 4 years of industry experience under my belt, she contacted me about an open position at the company she was working for. We reconnected over phone, email and in person, and I eventually got the job at her company where we are in a similar situation to when I was in college. We both report to the same boss but she is one step above me in ranking. She is mentoring me in the ins and outs of the company, grooming me to take over projects she hands off, and is also a sounding board for ideas, concerns, and personal stuff going on in my life. I couldn’t be happier having my old mentor back, epecially since I spent the last 4.5 years at a company with no one mentoring me at all.

    So long story short, I think the best mentorships come from close working relationships or from sharing a common interest/background. More informal than formal I guess.

  6. PEBCAK*

    One thing about the OP…did she tell you to e-mail her? I had a mentor years ago who wanted phone calls. I would cop out and email, and never hear from him, but calling worked. Now, I wouldn’t do this unsolicited, but I’m wondering if she ever said anything to that effect.

    1. AC*

      That was my thought as well. It is somewhat rude not to respond to multiple emails, but I’d try to contact her through another medium before writing the mentoring offer off entirely.

      1. majigail*

        That’s the key I think, find the best way to communicate with her. Email, text, phone, facebook… what ever. Since she’s expressed interest in you, try other methods, just not all at once. I totally agree with waiting a few weeks before the next attempt to contact.

  7. Ali*

    It never occurred to me to ask my mentor to formally mentor me. It started about a year and a half ago when I sent him an e-mail asking for career advice, but I never said “Will you be my mentor?” or some variation. He was changing jobs at the time (it wasn’t known to me until about a week after that e-mail), and even in the midst of a public announcement about his job change (he’s a radio announcer/PR manager for a minor league sports team), he got back to me briefly and told me he thought I was talented. Then he added that he loves to help and teach people and he would like to do the same for me.

    Although I no longer want to be in the sports industry, he’s still someone I keep in touch with, and I let him know about my promotion when I got hired into my new role last December. I will say that though he is very busy (take notes, OP), I can tell he is paying attention even when he can’t answer an e-mail. I saw him in public before Christmas, and he said he got my e-mail and congratulated me on the new role. Staying in contact requires a lot of patience and understanding on my end, but because he’s been a valuable part of my professional life, I don’t let an unanswered e-mail frustrate me.

  8. COT*

    Also, there’s no need for this to be an either/or situation. You can have more than one mentor in your life. (I would assume that many of us have more than one person we consider mentors, both in our personal and professional realms.) Move on in finding another person who has more time to give, with still taking advantage of any limited time you might get from this other woman in the future.

  9. Steve G*

    I never grasped the whole concept of asking someone to be your mentor; it’s like asking someone to be your friend. You can’t force a connection or force the conversations you need to grow. Such relationships in my field wouldn’t be possible. I either do the actual work for someone in my company, or I don’t. The only other good “mentoring” opportunity would be with someone from a competitor, and that aint gonna happen! The only other people that know about my energy market are consultants who would just be hitting me up for fees, or regulators who by law have to hold me at arm’s length. Hence I am very curious how the whole asking someone to mentor you thing works in other fields, and in what fields those are.

    1. COT*

      I think it depends a lot on the field and where in your career you are. Sometimes mentors can help with broader workplace skills (leadership, communication, conflict resolution, negotiation) even if you can’t talk the nitty-gritty of your industry.

      I mentor college students at my alma mater. None of the students I’ve been matched with so far have wanted a career path exactly like mine, but we’ve still been able to talk about lots of issues about life after college and starting a career, even if I’m not an expert on their chosen job. We’ve covered issues like interviewing, resumes, dress code, budgeting, salary, renting a home, friendships after college, etc. Obviously someone further in their career might have more focused areas for growth, but I still think we can learn from people in different industries if we generally admire their work.

      1. Steve G*

        ok, those are more relavent issues than I thought. I guess another part of why I don’t understand mentoring is that the only mentoring I see in the past is 2 women who end up talking about their feelings and what the want from life, relationships, etc., and nothing really specific or about work…..

        1. fposte*

          All my experience as or with mentors has been informal, and I’m with you in thinking the overt request seems funny; on the other hand, I’ve been the beneficiary of incredible long-term informal mentoring by somebody who gave me so many direct opportunities I can’t even list them. So I can attest to the experience’s value.

  10. De Minimis*

    One of my former employers had a structured mentoring program, although the mentor was more like a supervisor [although mentees did not always directly work with/report to them.] The mentor and mentee mainly worked together to create the employee’s development plan/evaluation. Depending on the mentor’s role at the company, they might be able to provide work projects for the mentee.

    I had to formally meet with my mentor once per quarter, and he would often check to see how I was doing. One of the weaknesses of the program was that they did not seem to match mentors/mentees very well, my mentor did not really work on projects where there was a need for entry-level staff, while some of my peers who had awesome mentors who provided them with a lot of valuable experience.

    The crazy part was that both of us were cut loose at the end of the year–I was let go for performance reasons and he had his practice area dissolved. He has been really good as far as providing references, etc.

    I think in general the mentor relationship is probably better when it occurs “organically” instead of as a structured program.

  11. NUM*

    Does your boss have a relationship with this potential mentor? Since your boss encouraged you to approach the mentor, I suggest you go back to your boss. Explain the approach you’ve taken so far. Assure her that you still have great respect for the potential mentor, and that you would welcome the opportunity to get together. But, you don’t want to continue prodding if the mentor isn’t really all that receptive or is just too busy. Ask whether she has any further advice.

  12. fposte*

    Speaking more generally–my feeling, being in academics, is that I have a mentoring-type responsibility to all the relevant students, so one reason I’d resist a formal mentoring relationship is that it would suggest that there’s an official priority for some that’s not appropriate to me. But I’m always up for a “Hey, can we go for coffee so I can ask you about publishing/job-hunting/whatever?”

  13. jesicka309*

    I’d kill for a mentor. In my current job, there are 8 people on my level, and it often feels like we are all jostling for new responsibilities, leadership tasks and one on one time with our supervisor (we all started in the role at the same time, so there’s not even seniority, it’s all just arbitary, who asked first, who has been doing well the past two days, who is better friends with team leader b etc).
    I just wish I had someone to talk about my career with that wasn’t that one supervisor who has the needs of 7 other people in my exact situation to consider. He can’t give me advice without needing to think how me ‘taking initiative in the team’ will affect the other 7 people who should also be ‘taking initiative in the team’, and it creates situations where I watch person a get taught a new task wondering ‘why didn’t he choose me? I told him I’m super keen to do that stuff, but he’s showing John instead. Is John now the heir apparent when it comes to the supervisor role? Should I give up on this job then?’

    A mentor would help so much in being objective in situations like this, and having my back, but I can’t see a way for it to develop organically. Recently I emailed my HR about an internal role that I was interested in, but way under qualified for, and she gave me the contact details of someone in that department who would answer my questions and give my advice on how to position myself better for a role like that. Still waiting for a response, but hopefully that leads to something mentor-like.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      For what it’s worth, running a team like that is the sign of a really bad manager. It might help you to keep in mind that that’s what you’re dealing with!

      1. jesicka309*

        That does help, thanks Alison. :)
        I had an inkling that this was the case after my performance review last week, when I was told that I needed to work on my interpersonal skills (even though he knows that in our previous role, the members of my team bullied me, and still practice that exclusion!). It took me a day to realise that I had some how been blamed for being excluded by my team mates! I’ve definitely re-renewed my job search again, and hopefully I will find a role where I get to have one on one time with my supervisor. It’s all I really want now!

        1. fposte*

          It also sounds like you’re limiting your search to people in your own organization–open it up! Go to relevant events like conferences or whatever, talk to people there, including people at your level and people who were there recently. Sometimes people do have on-the-spot mentors, but it’s often not about the day-to-day minutiae but the long-term career steps, and they don’t have to work alongside you to have perspective on that.

  14. TheAssistant*

    My mentor-mentee relationships developed informally. When I started my job 3 years ago, the attitude at my organization (think national non-profit fundraising) was “this job can be many things, but we aren’t sure what those things are.” I basically had the chance to get involved in whatever aspect of fundraising I wanted.

    As a result, I have two fabulous mentors. Neither was by request – I demonstrated a willingness to learn and pitch in when needed, and in turn I got careful coaching and progressively responsible work tasks. My mentors occasionally take me out to lunch to talk about my career, train me on various non-entry-level aspects of fundraising, introduce me to their contacts, invite me to higher-level meetings, and once took me to a donor meeting. I’ve found I’ve been able to be very candid with them, and they provide a great sounding board to my frustrations, questions about How Offices Function (this is my first job), what to expect from this career, and how to succeed in fundraising. The advice has been invaluable – but I can’t stress enough that I had to put in a lot of hard work and grunt hours to develop trust and rapport with my mentors. They came to me, mind you – partially because I was far too naive about the workplace when I first began to know this type of professional relationship existed.

    I’m not sure I’d benefit from a truly formal “let’s sit down and have coffee and discuss these particular topics”, but these relationships have allowed me to accomplish much, much more than my initial job description alluded.

  15. Greg*

    This isn’t specific to mentoring, but my general rule when someone isn’t responding to one communication channel is to switch it up. If they don’t respond to emails, call. Or send them a message through LinkedIn. Or DM them on Twitter. First of all, some people respond differently to different channels (for example, I am notorious for not responding to voicemails. If I don’t call the person back right away, it just tends to fall off my radar). Second, sometimes reminding them in a different context can spur them to action, even if it’s only through the implied threat that you’ll hound them across every channel.

    Obviously, I’m not recommending you “WUPH” them (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytc9-wGCHW0). You try one alternative, and if possible base it on what you can glean about their habits. If they’re all over Twitter, they might be more responsive to DMs (or maybe not, if their activity means they get a ton). If they’re a developer, they may regard LinkedIn as the place where they get all those spammy recruiter InMails, so you want to avoid it. There are no hard and fast rules, and you never know what will or won’t work. But it’s definitely worth doing some experimenting.

  16. Chris Hogg*

    Read the book The 2-Hour Job Search by Dalton. He does an excellent job of defining / explaining the three types of people we will meet when we are “reaching out,” and how to handle them. He also explains how to find the one type of person who will help us.

    1. Greg*

      Was thinking the exact same thing. Dalton’s book is fantastic, BTW. Very AAM-ish in its approach to the job search.

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