when your 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?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. Volunteer Enforcer*

    Being in a similar(ish) boat myself, I’d try emailing once, stressing that it is completely up to the mentor such as participation, location and method (e.g. Over the phone / lunch).

  2. Hope*

    I think the problem is you’re being too open-ended in your request. It might work better if you suggested a specific time/place for a short coffee meet-up, because then she’ll have something concrete to deal with instead of a vague, open-ended request. Something like “I know we talked about getting coffee sometime. Would 7am at the Starbucks on Main St. this Thursday work for you, or is there a time/place that would work better for you?” If she doesn’t respond to that, or responds and can’t make it and doesn’t counter with a time/place that works for her, I’d drop it. She’s too busy to be your mentor.

    1. Gaara*

      I agree that more specificity and making an actual suggestion would be helpful, but I do think Alison is right that it’s been too much and that it’s time to step back. If I were the OP, I would sit back and wait a few months, and then try this kind of approach.

      1. Rocketship*

        Also agree on keeping it specific. I know that when I get a text from a friend that just says “When are you free next week?” I nearly break out in hives – because I know what will ensue is a sort of un-assertive, “Whatever works for you” – “Oh well I’m open Monday, Wednesday night, Thursday night, and all day Saturday – whatever you want!” – “Oh no no, whatever YOU want, I’m totally free” and now I want to scream and I’m not even currently having that conversation.

        I just recently got an email for setting up an appointment that said, “Let me know your top three times on X day and I’ll pick one.” I think it’s brilliant and I plan to use it for everything from now on. I get to say what will work best for me while still being flexible, and they can choose what works for them with the confidence that I will be available at that time. Bingo! Done!

        So that might be worth trying, if not with this mentor, in the future. I do also strongly agree with Alison, though – give it a good long while before you reach out again, OP. If nothing else, it’ll give you a break from bashing your head against that particular wall for a while.

  3. Honeybee*

    One thing that I’ve found true for me, OP, is that I have never had just one mentor. I’ve always had multiple mentors I could turn to for support in different parts of my career. When you’re getting mentored by busy people, it’s good to have different people you could turn to – and also, not every mentor is going to be good for every part of your career anyway. So I’d reduce the amount of time you spend reaching out to her, and look for other role models that you feel like you can connect with.

    I also agree that you don’t ever need to formalize it – just offer to buy people coffee and ask them questions, or pipe up and ask questions in less formalized settings. I can’t say that I ever made a decision that’s like “I need a mentor; let me look for one today.” It was more like “Let me notice people who are senior to me and good in my field but also seem friendly, and then let me ask them questions about my career.”

    1. Venus Supreme*

      I second the multiple mentors. I would consider myself to have three mentors, who are in different stages in their career and in different locations.

      All three relationships happened rather organically- two were from a prior internship and one was a facilitator at a workshop. She’s well-established in what she does and I e-mailed her asking for advice/guidance on a solo project I was working on in her area of expertise. So I really honestly don’t know how to formally acquire a mentor– I think it will happen naturally with the more people you meet and connections you make.

  4. TJ*

    In general, can a current boss be a mentor? Or would that conflict with their ability to manage you?

    1. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

      I think it depends on the circumstances, but I would say generally yes. Early in my career I utilized certain bosses as mentors, though I was careful and guarded where necessary (for example, if job searching). I still do this, to a certain extent, though not every boss I’ve had has been a great mentor (for me, anyway).

      1. TootsNYC*

        I try to mentor the people who work for me–not about getting a NEW job, but about “how to turn what I’m doing into a larger lesson about my field, or how to manage, etc.”

        So in that way, yes, a current boss can be a great mentor.

        1. Jen RO*

          I love teaching people about my industry… and it is tiny in this country, so the only people I *can* mentor are my reports or semi-reports. I’ve helped some of them with job searching, even. They were good, we were underpaying them, I couldn’t do anything about it… but I could give them flex time to go to interviews and I could put in a good word for them. (Plus, this means I have a small network of people who I trained and can vouch for me whenever I need a new job!)

  5. Chickaletta*

    I agree to lay off at this point. But, in the future, try a phone call instead of email. Email is easy to ignore, easy to forget about. It’s choked with spam; someone in your mentor’s position probably sifts through hundreds of emails a day.

    Many people prefer the phone anyway (you have to feel them out, but figure out who prefers what and use that method to reach them). Phone calls are underrated these days: a phone call accomplishes so much in such a short amount of time. You could have made the call and set up a date to meet all within a couple minutes whereas an email conversation can drag out over days.

  6. TootsNYC*

    Try specific questions–not just getting together, but “I have this job interview, and I want to ask what you think would be the best experience to highlight?”

    1. TootsNYC*

      I’ve never officially mentored someone, with that label, but I have had people come to me and say, “Would you tell me what you think of this interaction w/ my boss?” “What do you think about this criticism?” “How should I frame this work experience for a new job?”

      Sort of like, the questions you’re write in to Alison about!

    2. TootsNYC*

      (oof, here I go again with the “and another thought” thing)

      I don’t want to have to do all the work when I’m mentoring. It’s YOUR life, not mine, so I don’t want any open-ended responsibility here. That’s for my life, not yours.
      I want to provide the benefits of my greater years of experience; of my perspective from having been a boss or department head or hiring manager.
      But I don’t want to be expected to sit and brainstorm about what kinds of jobs you should be looking for, etc. That’s too much angst on me for someone else’s life.

      Which goes back to my first point, which is to have a specific reason you want her attention and time. And then tell her that.

      That might also provide the “time pressure” that will get her to carve out time for you.

  7. J.B.*

    My take: I don’t see the big deal in mentors. I mean, picking someone’s brain here and there at a conference it great. But regular meetings? Why? You should pick up the basics as you go along. Otherwise once in a blue moon maybe ask a very specific industry question or how do I get ahead in this company. But I wonder if making it into a big thing is because you expect you are supposed to rather than really needing to.

  8. just my 2 cents*

    I’d find a new mentor.

    I know someone, very high profile, likes to get on the university mentor lists, etc. because it “looks good”…. then he is never available.

  9. Mmmmmk*

    Not sure what area of nonprofit work you are in but many chapters of AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals) have a formal mentorship program where they match you with more seasoned fundraisers who have already expressed a desire to have mentees. Also, I’m really curious who this person is/is located because “rattle my cage” is totally something my mentor (my first boss) would say.

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