How to be a more intentional apprentice

Many aspire to be great leaders, but few give much thought to being a great apprentice. Because leadership is borne through apprenticeship, the best leaders are also great apprentices.  They know that there’s always something they can learn from others and they’re not afraid to pursue it. In my earlier post, I listed three benefits to being a more intentional apprentice. But how do you become a more intentional apprentice? How can you get the most out of a relationship with a mentor? In my experiences both as an apprentice and as a mentor, I’ve found four fundamental strategies to be very effective:

  1. Start small & focused. Be clear about your objective. The more focused you can be on what you want to accomplish, the more likely you’ll find a great mentor. You’ll make a better, more winsome, apprentice to your prospective mentor, too. Suppose you want to write a book and you’ve never been published. If you approach a published author or publisher and ask them to mentor you as an aspiring writer, you may not get very far. However, asking to meet with them briefly to get their perspective on which markets are best to write for, or what to look for in an agent, or the best conferences to attend, will more likely get you an audience and the possibility of a more lasting relationship. Start by asking to meet once. If that goes well, suggest a monthly or quarterly check-in. Don’t ask to meet any more often than is reasonable to accomplish your objective. Over time, your objective may grow and, with it, their commitment to meet with you as well.
  2. Pursue the best mentors possible. When you want to excel in a particular skill, select a mentor from the highest shelf your network will support. The right mentor for you may be someone you know, or, perhaps more likely, someone separated by one degree–known by someone you know. Ask your network to help you accomplish your objective. For example, “Who do you know that might help me evaluate literary agents?” Don’t be surprised if you get some pretty incredible names. Many in your network will love to show off the superstars they know. Don’t let their superstar status or busy schedule intimidate you. The best mentors are busy people. But they’ll take time for those who are serious about achieving their objectives. Many are like the prettiest girl in high-school who never got asked out on a date simply because the boys assumed she was already taken. Good mentors, however, were usually mentored themselves and are eager to share their experiences to those who ask.
  3. Be a learner. This seems rather obvious, but I’m always amazed at how many times I’ve met with someone who requested a meeting, only to find that they didn’t have a clear reason to meet. The conversation awkwardly fumbles about until I finally ask, “Why did you want to meet me?” Conversely, I’m always impressed by those who have prepared questions listed out ahead of time. The simple act of opening a notebook with prepared questions speaks loudly about their attitude and their respect for my time.
  4. Own the pursuit. Like a good salesperson, always own the pursuit. As the apprentice, it’s your job to set the appointments and topics you’d like to explore. If you’re expecting a mentor to take the lead, you’re looking for the wrong mentor. At the end of each meeting, suggest a topic for the next, and always send an email to confirm your appointment. It will show your eagerness to learn and will create anticipation for your mentor too.

One final thought about intentional apprenticeship. Over the last thirty years, I’ve learned from some really stellar mentors. They’ve taught me as much about myself as they have the objectives I’ve discussed with them. One of the things I discovered is that it’s easy to look at their successes and compare them with my own–and come up short. (Remember, we’re reaching from the highest shelf.) That kind of comparison produces only envy or resentment, neither of which is helpful as an intentional apprentice. The best antidote to envy and resentment, however, is thanksgiving. So end every session expressing your thanks to them for their assets of wisdom and knowledge that benefits your personal growth.

As an intentional apprentice, what other strategies have you found helpful?

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