by Jamie Lawrence-Craig
An Interview with Saswati Saha Mitra, Research Leader at WhatsApp
“I have seen a qualitative decline in mentees in the last 5-7 years,” Saswati Saha Mitra tells me when I ask her why she has decided to consistently put herself out there as a mentor in spite of her busy schedule as Research Leader at WhatsApp. The problem, it seems, is that since professional mentoring and networking moved online, getting in contact with someone is too easy, too effortless, without consequence. This leads to a bad match, and like most relationships that start off on the wrong foot, the connection soon goes south. Revive spoke with Saswati to find out how mentees should find, approach and cultivate their mentor to profit from long-lasting, slow mentorship.
“I used to reach out to someone in the industry who I may have heard speaking or after reading something written by them,” Saswati explains as she describes starting out as a young professional in India. “And because I had to write to them, it forced me to look up what this person did, their interests, or what was recent for them. That helped to have a better, higher level of conversation because you knew what they were experts in and you had to ask a genuine question, rather than just ‘Hey, can you mentor me?’”
Getting it right is about contacting the right person
The process will always be hit-and-miss, but sending two personal messages to two practitioners who might be able to help is infinitely more effective than a hundred generic messages asking successful, experienced people for advice and access to their network. They are way too busy to deal with (or countenance) seemingly lazy requests. Shared cultural values are less important, finding someone who may have gone through what you are facing is a good start.
So how to find that elusive mentor? Saswati explains how she always started with questions. “What is the problem that I need help with? It’s not so much about the person themselves or the company they work for – all that comes secondary. The real question is: has this person gone through something similar? Would they understand the problem I am trying to solve?”
So get searching; read industry articles and blogs, scour LinkedIn for alumni and alumnae of your school or university, or people who have made a similar industry switch. Don’t let age or experience hinder you from contacting someone. In a previous article on mentoring, we called for a new breed of mentor, a younger, more dynamic practitioner with the confidence to share experiences and willing to ask the right questions. Someone who has recently overcome what you are facing can offer relevant insights.
Reaching out to mentors
Now you’ve identified your targets, the initial connection is crucial. It sets the tone, it can set you apart, and it shows that you are in a genuine quandary that requires assistance. You don’t want to ask for a solution, but you want to ask someone who has the experience and the ability to steer you towards the right solution.
“The best and most articulate mentor requests are when people first talk a bit about themselves: who they are, their current situation, and the challenge they are facing. Then they follow it up with some kind of explanation as to why, where and how they think I can be helpful. That’s normally enough. Setting the right context with a little bit of effort takes the conversation a long way. It helps me when I have no connection with the person contacting me.”
Brilliant! Your ideal mentor has responded to your fine-tuned, honed, personal mentor request. Don’t let up, come prepared for your first and subsequent sessions. Getting the perfect mentor is only useful if you can get the most out of the contact. The mentor will only help you out if they think you are worth it.
Preparing for your session
“Before a meeting or session, write at most a page explaining the background and what you would like to talk about,” Saswati advises. “It’s an email that a mentor can quickly read on their way to a meeting, and just that can fast forward the conversation by 15 minutes. It means we discuss the problem, and also socially connect in good time. As a mentee, I think it’s really important to ask your mentor about the challenges they are also facing and what they are going through.”
Making life-long connections
Making that social connection with your mentor doesn’t just help the conversation on the day. It can help for decades. The most fruitful mentor-mentee relationships can last a career.
“If a mentee stays in touch, I see them grow in a certain direction or a certain way,” Saswati explains. “I know where you are going and I can connect you to other people who might be trying to achieve the same goals as you, who could support you, or who you could support. It’s not just connecting to a job. It’s about making mutually beneficial connections. It works for the mentor too. When I have to hire, if I know someone’s journey, their skills, strengths and weaknesses, I can go to that person. That really makes it worth it.”