When you think of success, who first comes to mind? Oprah? Steve Jobs? Barack Obama? Whoever it is, you can be sure that they didn’t get there all alone. Having someone to provide guidance is a huge part of achieving your goals.

Oprah Winfrey had Maya Angelou. Steve Jobs had Andy Grove. President Obama had Andy Grove. And everyone of them would tell you that this is one of the most important elements of their success: mentorship.

But why do we need a mentor?

As Denzel Washington once said, “Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living—if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.”

Mentorship is an extraordinary opportunity to learn directly from someone with the expertise or wisdom that you look up to. And, like Jim Rohn said about mentorship, a great mentor will say, ‘Let’s go do it,’ not ‘You go do it.’ How powerful when someone says, ‘Let’s!’

But it’s tricky to understand how you establish a mentoring relationship. Where do you even start?

As it turns out, most people make their biggest mistake right at the beginning. Here’s what generally happens: you come across someone you think would provide great advice to you, and then you jump straight to asking, “Will you be my mentor?”

This set-up rarely leads to a resounding “Yes!” Why? Because asking someone to be your mentor is a vague question that doesn’t clearly define goals or expectations. And, most important, you’ve probably asked  far before you’ve established yourself as trustworthy. For this successful, busy  person, it’s going to be hard to agree to an obligation with fuzzy boundaries. Unfortunately, nobody tells you this!

Let’s look at the alternative. If you take a step-by-step approach to gradually build rapport– showing how reliable you are– you get to share your goals and see how that person could help — and how YOU can help your mentor. Slow and steady wins the race here because gradually building the mentor-mentee relationship is a much smoother approach.

Once you come across someone who you think may be a great mentor, there are a few steps you can take to make a more seamless transition into a mentorship.

  1. Reach out and express interest in their work.

Start by acknowledging what you think is great about this person. This gives you a chance to make an initial connection and get clear about what kind of people you look up to.

This first step is an opportunity for a simple introduction, compliment, comment, or question. It could be in-person or over email, depending on if you see this person face-to-face fairly often, like a teacher, or less frequently, such as with a family member’s coworker. Reaching out might seem a little uncomfortable first, but that’s OK! Getting out of your comfort zone to make the initial contact is an important first step.

  1. Set up a 20-minute informational interview.

After you’ve had a brief interaction with the potential mentor, set up something a little more formal. An informational interview is a chance for you to ask a series of questions to find out more about the person’s career or area of expertise that you’re interested in.

It doesn’t have to be too complicated. When it comes to their work, what are you curious to hear more about?

Make at least one of your questions advice-focused, such as “Can you suggest a great online resource where I can find out more about this topic?” This will help you to continue your exploration.

  1. Show that you follow-through.

Take a piece of advice they suggested and put it into action. This step is key. Not only did your potential mentor take the time to make a recommendation, but you’ll probably get a lot of value from it. If the suggestion was a resource, check it out. If it was a tip or trick, try it.

And this next part is critical: make sure to report back to share the results! Send an email or approach them in-person to say how it went. This step will show how reliable you are. They see that their time speaking with you was worthwhile because you’re using their advice!

  1. Propose regular meetings.

See if this person would be open to meeting routinely. The amount of time and how often you meet will depend on how well you two know each other so far, but you can propose once per month for 30 minutes at first. Don’t be afraid to start small here. Remember, this is a gradual build.

The important part here is being really clear about your goal. Do you want to learn more about their area of expertise? Would it be most valuable to hear about their career path? Are you hoping to learn how to build a specific skill, such as networking?

Think ahead of time about what’s most valuable and clearly communicate it when you have this discussion. It shows the expert that you want to use time wisely and you’ve thought through the purpose of these meetings.

  1. Express appreciation.

Saying “thank you” is critical. Let them know that their time is worthwhile and you truly appreciate their advice. Chances are that this person is very busy, so acknowledge their generosity. A follow-up email is great; a handwritten note is even better.

Taking these steps can help you build a much stronger mentorship relationship, and having this kind of support can really accelerate your success. Remember, anyone who has accomplished big goals had some sort of support!

Want more guidance? If you’re not sure how to identify someone who would make a great mentor or if you’re looking for additional tips on establishing a mentorship, here’s a video that will help.
Don’t be afraid to take your time setting up a mentorship. After all, this is a bond that could span many years and carries the potential to propel you into a truly meaningful project or career. And that’s something worth taking the time to build.