Having a mentor can be incredibly powerful in shaping your career. Connect with someone who believes in you – and is willing to share their knowledge, contacts and influence to help you – and it can open doors you didn’t even know were there.

In my experience, mentorships this strong and impactful are somewhat rare, and they don’t usually start through formal mentorship programs. The relationship between a mentor and their protégé (if it gets that far) needs to develop organically, and – like all true relationships – it will be based on mutual respect, interest and a chemistry you can’t force.

So, how can you connect with an amazing mentor? Here are some tips.

Never ask “Will you be my mentor?”

“If someone has to ask the question, the answer is probably no. When someone finds the right mentor, it is obvious.  The question becomes a statement. Chasing or forcing that connection rarely works.” – Cheryl Sandberg, Lean In.

This is the biggest mistake people make with mentorship (or maybe this one’s a tie – taking without giving in return is also pretty egregious, and shockingly common).

Firstly, this is a lot of pressure to put on anyone. Secondly, the person probably has no idea if they want to be your mentor. Start smaller: with a single conversation. You’ll know if there’s a connection, and can keep the relationship moving, without a formal agreement.

Find the people you really like.
It’s okay to dream big and aim high in your search for a mentor. Who inspires you? Hopefully there will be some people on your list that you have access to (your favourite professors, someone in your organization or field who does amazing work), to go along with your more high-profile inspirations.

Now find ways to connect. Tell your professors how much you admire their work, and ask about opportunities to help. Offer your help, having done some thinking about what you have to offer and how they would benefit (something to keep in mind: this is not a sales pitch, so don’t go over the top here). If the person is a stranger, find ways to get on their radar. Showcase your own talents and achievements, instead of treating them like a towering and intimidating presence. That said, a nice note of introduction expressing your admiration for a person’s work, and how it’s inspired you in x y and z, is a great way to connect, especially with people whose work often goes unrecognized (AKA not Oprah).

Find the people who really like you.
You’ve got them: the prof who always gives you an A; the manager who encourages you to apply for a promotion (even though it might mean losing you from their team); the family friend who is really interested in what you’re working on now. These are people who clearly connect with something you bring to the world, and would probably love to help support your growth and development. These are the people you can ask for help, without worrying that you’re going to be a burden (within reason).

Actively pursue opportunities to deepen these relationships. Ask that they keep you in mind for opportunities on interesting projects. Let them know what challenges you’re facing in your career and that you’d appreciate any guidance and wisdom they can share.

Go ahead and join those mentorship programs, but check your expectations.
Many new graduates get a similar email, inviting them to take advantage of a “powerful network of alumni” by joining a formal mentorship program. If you have an opportunity like this, and there are many of them out there, feel free to take it. Just know that the chances are slim that you’ll find and make a deep connection.

Go in expecting what’s most likely: a nice person who wants to help someone who is just starting out, and can probably give you some perfectly adequate advice. They can maybe even connect you with a job opportunity or two, but probably won’t fight for you to actually get the job. And that’s totally okay – it’s fair.

It’s entirely possible that this kind of set-up can lead to a meaningful relationship, but it’s just as possible (and more likely) that you won’t find a deep connection, so don’t try to force it.

Conclusion: finding a mentor is a lot like dating (so is interviewing!). Not every meeting is going to be a love connection, but you can still have fun and learn a lot in the process. Chances are you can learn something from every relationship; some people you’ll have coffee with and never want to see again, some will become real sources of support and guidance, and sometimes – sometimes – you’ll meet someone who changes your life completely.