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How to Build a Secret Circle of Mentors

Building a secret circle of mentors is an amazing way to find coaching and support ... without ever having to ask for it. Here's who to look for and how to make it happen.

By
Rachel Cooke
6-minute read
Episode #607

Hold onto your hat for the big reveal—I dig mentors. Who'd have thought?

Depending on the goals you’ve set, your mentor may educate, inform, inspire, or offer you feedback. There are no limits on what that relationship might bring your way. But for many, the idea of finding a mentor and maintaining that relationship can feel heavy, overwhelming, or intimidating.

And I get it. It’s a big ask of someone you admire and respect. And as the mentee, you may feel pressured to make the most of every minute spent together.

But here’s the thing—“mentor” is a verb as well as a noun. It’s entirely possible for someone to mentor you without being a “capital M” Mentor.

“Mentor” is a verb as well as a noun. It’s entirely possible for someone to mentor you without being a “capital M” Mentor.

And while I don’t hold myself up as the epitome of success, I have achieved a lot as I’ve defined it for myself. And as I reflect on levers I’ve pulled and buttons I’ve pushed in getting here, I realize I’ve built a secret circle of mentors that has supported me along the way. Some have known they’ve been mentoring me, and others haven’t. Others, I don’t even know personally—they’ve mentored me from afar. In some way, they’ve provided support in a form that has served me in growing and achieving.

If you’re not feeling up to the task of asking someone to be a mentor, then let’s talk about the different types of secret mentors you might pull into your own circle of support.

Here’s what my circle has looked like.

Find direction with a compass-holder

A compass-holder is the person who inspires you, offers a sense of direction.

When you set down a path—any path—it’s super helpful to look toward someone a few steps ahead of you. You don’t have to follow every step they’ve taken, but you have the luxury of seeing how their steps have played out. In some cases, you may study what they did and attempt to replicate it. In others, you may choose to go left where they went right.

This person can be either someone you know or a total stranger.

This person can be either someone you know or a total stranger. Author and personal branding expert Dorie Clark was one of my secret mentors when I was just getting started. It wasn’t just what she had achieved, but it was the scrappiness and hustle she demonstrated that really spoke to me.

I listened to her stories, read her books, and played with her tools. And much of what she had to share really pushed me down my own path.

So yes, when I recently had the opportunity to interview her for this show, I may have swooned ... but just a bit. I kept things "profesh." I hope.

RELATED: Fire Up Your Personal Brand: An Interview with Dorie Clark

Is there someone you look up to? It can be someone available to you in real life, or even just someone who'll whisper in your ear from afar as Dorie did with me. What can you learn from the path they’ve already paved?

Find insight with a Yoda

I’m good at what I do. I hope you feel the same in your realm.

But being good on balance means being great at some things and meh at others. I can own my meh.

When I started my business, I was already strong at doing the work of designing and facilitating programs and experiences for leadership teams. But the art of selling the business, managing the projects, and tackling the administration—that was all fodder for learning.

Early on, I did some freelance work for other, more experienced consultants in my field, taking note of how they streamlined some of these basic processes. I asked questions as the work progressed and took note of the strategies I knew would serve me. And today I run a better business for it.

Where are your blind spots? Your opportunity areas? Who’s conquered those? What questions can you pose to crack open their wisdom?

Find partnership with a co-pilot

Sometimes being mentored isn’t so much about being taught but about learning alongside someone who paces and inspires you.

Sometimes a client calls me asking for a half-day program. Other times they’re looking for a full-blown organizational health assessment or company-wide leadership curriculum. I can rock a half-day program on my own. But health checks and curriculum development will always trigger my bringing in a partner. Not because the work is too much, but because it’s too complex. And sometimes I know an outcome will be richer when I’m working collaboratively with someone who pushes me with thought partnership.

Ask yourself whether there's someone you can pull in for a brainstorming session or even a preparatory roleplay.

Next time you’re staring down a complex customer call you need to make, or you’re kicking off a new ad campaign, ask yourself whether there's someone you can pull in for a brainstorming session or even a preparatory roleplay. Whose collaboration will set you up to knock this one out of the park?

Expand your network with a connector

They say it’s all about who you know. But sometimes it’s about knowing a person who knows the people ... and isn’t shy about making intros.

In the earliest days of my business, I used to joke with my friend Elaine that I was going to use her face as my company’s logo. This is because my first three clients were all referrals from Elaine. And my favorite partner to bring in when I need help? Also a connection via Elaine.

Sometimes it’s about knowing a person who knows the people ... and isn’t shy about making intros.

I never formally asked Elaine to be my mentor. But she was a supporter and an advocate. Investing in that relationship served me incredibly well. I never took advantage of her generosity and I choose to believe the value of our relationship moved in both directions.

Maybe you want to do some informational interviewing, or you’re looking to broaden your network in your field. Who’s a connector in your life who may be willing to do some outreach for you?

Create balance with an optimizer

Sometimes the thing you need to learn isn’t how to do your job better but how to do better at keeping your job in balance with your life.

Meet my husband Brian. He’s the California chill to my New York angst. He is the coolest cat I know. And I learn from him every day. Is he successful? Absolutely. Ask him what he does, and he’ll list marketing, fathering, coaching our girls in soccer and basketball, tending our veggie garden, managing investments, collecting (and tasting) wine …

Is there someone in your life who helps you keep everything in perspective? Keep them close. Marry them if you have to!

There’s more, but I think I’ve made my point. He is the most balanced, well-rounded person I know. I’ll never achieve that level of stasis, but I strive for it every day. He keeps me relatively in check. I approach him with an emergency and I leave with a totally manageable problem.

Is there someone in your life who helps you keep everything in perspective? Keep them close. Marry them if you have to!

Achieve self-improvement with a challenger

This is the person who will ask you hard questions, poke holes, and tell you what might go wrong.

I know. This person sounds like a miserable, pessimistic nag. But if they’re challenging you in a mentoring way, they're not criticizing you, they're pushing you to be better.

This is the person you show your resume or proposal to and say “I know it’s pretty good. I’m not looking for a pat on the back. I’m looking for the holes, the opportunities, the spots I can take from good to great.”

They’ll take your solid idea and make it a slam dunk. Who is someone you trust to play this role in a non-critical, there-to-serve-you kind of way?

And there you have it—your own personal scavenger hunt or Bingo card full of secret mentors. How many can you find? What categories would you add?

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.