Making the pitch
Once you've identified a potential mentor, it's time to approach them. Often a soft sell might be best, rather than coming right out and saying “Will you be my mentor?" — which can feel a little awkward.
Start by nurturing the relationship. If you met a promising prospect at an industry function, follow up and let them know you appreciated their insights at a specific session or that you are still reflecting on your lively conversation at a pre-event luncheon. Follow them on social networks, and comment on and share their posts.
Then when you feel the time is right, make your ask. Try something like, “I sat in on your presentation at the [such and such trade show] last month and since then have really learned a lot from your posts on LinkedIn. I have just started a business and wondered if we could chat sometime … maybe a half hour on the phone or over coffee?" Note that committing to 30 minutes probably sounds more doable to your potential mentor than if you proposed a regular meeting time or even a lengthy lunch.
Prior to the meeting, prepare some talking points about your career trajectory that will help your contact get to know you better — and convince them that you are worthy of their time. In addition, have some insightful questions for them about both their own experience and the industry in general.
After that first meeting, thank them graciously for their time and insight, and mention something specific about your conversation that you intend to put into practice.
Building the relationship
If the meeting went well, consider proposing a more regular time. But remember that while the cliché mentor relationship is a weekly coffee meeting, that may be as outdated as the three-martini lunch in today's on-the-go work world. Your meetings might take place on the phone, via video chat, or even on a hike, if you're so inclined.
Your mentor is undoubtedly busy so be respectful of their time, which includes meeting on their terms, even if it's a place or time that is less convenient for you. And of course, always be gracious if they need to cancel or reschedule.
While you may have many questions, your meetings will be more productive if you focus on one or two specific things each time. Be sure to let your mentor know in advance what you want to discuss so they can come prepared and then report back how you put their advice into practice.
Finally, make sure you treat the relationship as a two-way street. Forward an article that pertains to a personal or professional interest they mentioned, or invite them to see a relevant speaker. More importantly, find out what their needs are and then offer referrals as appropriate.
As with any relationship, finding the right mentor can take time. But as with most things in life, the more you put into it, the more you'll get out of it.