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Illustration by Maia Grecco

The first time Humaira Ahmed wished she had a mentor, she was in university. Coming from Pakistan, where her software engineering classes were equally attended by men and women, she was shocked to discover that in Canada, few of her classmates were women. And when she went to work in the tech industry after graduating from communication studies, “I still found it was super-isolating,” she recalls. “There was just no playbook for women.”

Today, a dozen years later, Ms. Ahmed helps women like her younger self connect with mentors as CEO of her Vancouver-based company Locelle. Similarly, Karen Simpson lights the way up the career ladder for women as a mentor and through her role as president of Lean In Toronto, a networking organization for professional women.

Here are Ms. Ahmed and Ms. Simpson’s tips on how women can find the right mentors to help them fulfill their ambitions:

1. Decide on a goal

The first question to ask yourself is, “Why do you want to connect with a mentor?” says Ms. Ahmed. Do you want to develop a particular skill? Build confidence in public speaking? Or are you just feeling stuck and need help finding clarity? Once you have those answers, “then you can begin work sourcing the best experts,” Ms. Simpson says.

2. Hunt in-house

Both Ms. Simpson and Ms. Ahmed suggest looking for support within your current workplace. “Women need sponsorship – people who will have their back when they’re not in the room and advocate for them,” Ms. Simpson says. Such a person may be more ally than mentor, but both can play valuable roles on what Ms. Simpson calls “your personal board.”

3. Widen your search

Since your current role can typecast you in the eyes of co-workers, Ms. Ahmed also recommends casting your net outside of your company or organization, but not too far from your present sector. “We’ve found the best matches are [between people] in similar industries,” she says.

4. Make a connection

Within your business and personal circle, ask for referrals to experts in your chosen area of focus. LinkedIn is another good resource, Ms. Ahmed says. If your candidate is on LinkedIn or another platform, “engage with their content, comment on it,” or give a genuine compliment, she says. Wait until you’ve established some back-and-forth before making an ask.

5. Prepare a short pitch

Before reaching out, craft a brief introduction. “It could be – this is who I am, this is what I do, and here’s why I’m reaching out to you – are you open to a 10-minute conversation?” says Ms. Ahmed. (And if you get a yes, make sure you do wrap up the call in 10 minutes.)

6. Do your homework

Prepare for that initial discussion, says Ms. Simpson. “Develop questions that will vet expertise, authenticity and feedback, yet leave room to learn about the person so you can properly assess rapport and trust.” Think of that first-time chat as an audition of sorts, she adds.

7. Show your appreciation

When you do meet online or in person, reserve the last few minutes of your discussion to say thanks, and “recap what you’ve talked about and the value you got,” says Ms. Ahmed. Promise you’ll be back in touch after you’ve applied any advice to share how things went.

8. Plan for the future

After the meeting, assess the interaction. “Did you learn all you wanted to know in one short meeting?” Ms. Simpson says. “Is there an authentic interest in regular discussions?” If so, ask if the potential mentor is open to the idea. From there, negotiate aspects such as scheduling, topics, confidentiality and duration of discussions.

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

Question: I’ve been dealing with some mental health issues recently. It’s something that I’ve had in a moderate way for most of my life, but recently I’m having a tough time keeping it from affecting my work. I’m getting support from friends, family and medical professionals, but I’m afraid to tell my boss what’s going on. I’ve always been such a go-getter in her eyes and I feel like it will kill any possibility of advancement in future. What’s the best way to approach this – can I just sidestep my boss and talk directly to HR?

We asked Marie-Josée Nucci, HR consultant at Go RH in Montreal to field this question:

My first impression is that you already have a fantastic base, in the sense that you’re aware that you are having some mental health challenges and you seem to be well-supported by medical professionals and family. It’s the best place a person can start from.

It can be scary to discuss this subject from a work perspective. People think, if I do say something, I will be judged. But on the contrary, it shows so much maturity and responsibility to say, I’m not doing so well right now and I need to take action.

In regards to whether you should approach your boss or HR, it depends on what kind of environment you’re working in. Does the company have a culture with what we call psychological safety, where employees are encouraged to talk about mental health? In that case, most of the time we would recommend going to the supervisor first, because the HR person may not know you very well. If you do not feel that level of trust or safety, that’s when you might want to go directly to your HR department.

I would start by asking your supervisor if she could schedule some time to talk. Then say, I have been going through some mental health challenges lately, and I want to see if the two of us can come up with some sort of plan of action to help me with work. You don’t have to go into great detail about your mental health issues, it’s whatever is comfortable for you.

It’s also important for you to identify what triggered the change in the way you are feeling. Is it stress due to a too-heavy workload? All the Zoom calls? Maybe you need a day off in the middle of the week for ‘x’ number of weeks. Or maybe you need to finish at noon on Fridays. It isn’t necessarily a long term fix. It’s just for right now, because your body and your mind are telling you that you need to take action.

One last thing – the person receiving this information may be surprised by it. So, they may need some time to process it and come up with answers. It’s important not to feel bad or uncomfortable about that. The best move is to give the supervisor a bit of time, then reach out and follow up if you don’t hear back. But usually, if there’s a good relationship, the person will follow up and you will be able to work out a solution together.

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

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