Establishing a mentor relationship is an iterative process. Identify a person in your life for whom you have great respect and you think may be a great fit, beit a neighbour, a relative, a professor, etc.. If there is no one in your inner circle directly that has the background you need, ask your inner circle for referrals – six degrees of separation usually works. Once identified and introduced, my approach would NOT be to ask them to be your “mentor” at the outset but rather ask if they mind if you seek their counsel on your current issue. In all likelihood, they will offer opportunities for future discussions at the end of your first conversation – if they don’t – and you are comfortable with the results of that conversation, ask if you could contact them regarding career issues from time to time.
A “mentor relationship” develops over time. It takes time to build trust and get to know each other. What I think you will find is that through these initial and subsequent contacts, you will start to build a small network of advisors because –let’s call it your tier 1 mentor/advisor – will refer you to friends and colleagues with specific expertise to help where they cannot. In this way, you have the opportunity to expand your resources. You will find that people do want to help you. Don’t be shy to ask but be focused with your question(s). Let me caution you on this point.
I had a call from a graduate this summer about career choices versus enrolling in an MBA. It became evidently clear in the initial conversation that this person had done little to no research or serious thinking on the subject. While I was very happy to help and readily gave advice about (1) looking at different job postings of interest to see whether the jobs were what they actually thought they were and what academic requirements were stipulated (2) researching different programs (MBA plus others) to determine if there was a fit relative to their career interests and strengths and (3) providing names of people in different industries that could take these discussions further, if they so wished.
I made the point with this individual, however, that it was important that they do their own research first and formulate specific open-ended questions to kick off the next level of discussions. They needed to think this through for themselves and then seek advice and counsel – mentors can be very helpful but they are not mind readers.
Remember, most senior people do want to help but they are busy people. You make it easy for them to say yes to a request for a call or a meeting when you can articulate clearly where you need their advice and how they may be helpful. Over time, the relationship(s) can develop to be a valuable resource throughout your career. Enjoy the journey.