how to get time with your mentor

Building Your Network: Value Others’ Time to Make Valuable Connections

>View this article on The Huffington Post

As a marketing and publicity strategist working with entrepreneurs, I get a request like this at least once a week:

Hey Ciara! I have a launch/event/campaign coming up and I want to pick your brain on how to market it/get press/do everything. Can I take you out for coffee/lunch/a drink (on me!!!!!!) next week? xoxoxoxo – Person Ciara Met Once At Some Conference Three Years Ago

“What a nice-sounding person!” you’re thinking. “I’m sure you will have a lovely exchange of ideas and tea.”

Not so fast. Emails like this make a passionate entrepreneur like me crazy-conflicted. But just before I guilted myself into yet another courtesy “yes,” I found out that my fellow consultants feel exactly the same way. We’ve built businesses based on our time and yet we can be horrible at teaching others to value it!

I’ll go out on a limb and assume I’m speaking for everyone who’s paid based on their work quality and quantity — consultants, coaches, psychologists, lawyers, accountants, salespeople, brokers, stylists — and tell you exactly what we’re thinking when you sweetly ask for free advice, favors, appointments, and extensions (time, not hair).

The truth is that I do informational interviews, one-on-one meetings, and donate my services quite regularly. I introduce people who can help each other and forward job postings and do a handful of speaking engagements for free.

But if I’m going to help you move forward in your career and keep my own, we need to get on the same page when it comes to valuing one another’s time and expertise.

Here’s what to consider when asking for a freebie, from emails to cocktails:

What type of professional is she?

I am a consultant, which means my job is to provide ideas and instruction. When people ask for my guidance, I charge them for it. That is my business. I feel incredibly lucky to have created a business out of my passion for telling people what to do, so it’s difficult to say no. But the only way I can stay in business is to create boundaries around my time and input.

What’s in it for her?

The nature of business is something-for-something, and that those two somethings should be of similar value. I provide consultations for people who need my services. I take meetings with people who can also offer me something that makes my business or professional life better. I request meetings and favors from people I know I can offer something to, whether now or in the near future. As your professional time grows more precious, you’ll have to draw similar boundaries to protect your own energy.

Does her time equal money?

Since my business is service-based, I only get paid if I charge for my work. It would be one thing if my salary magically appeared whether I’d worked an 80-hour week or spent that week on vacation, but that’s not the case. Same goes for salespeople who work on commission and that waiter who’s not making any new tips on that table where you’ve been lingering for an hour past your dessert course. Don’t ask me or my paying clients to subsidize your service. But it’s not just us: even my super-talented, super-busy salaried friends bemoan the frequent clamors for help on the side. Their time is valuable too.

While I do truly appreciate offers of complimentary caffeination, my time is worth more than $4 per hour, so a cappuccino is not equivalent compensation. I prefer to be paid with money, because then the decision of whether to turn it into caffeine or rent is mine, and mine alone. I advise my clients (from web designers to hairstylists to personal trainers) never to do business on barter — it often turns into an undesirably unequal quagmire.

Friends ask for favors… but are we actually friends?

Or simply friendly? There is a difference. My friends are people whom I see regularly, who invite me to their weddings, who know my deepest dreams (being a paid consultant) and fears (asking people to pay me to consult). If I haven’t heard from you in a year, it’s safe to say that you won’t be asking me to be a godparent when we hang. We may be enormously fond of each other, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to a 100 percent discount.

How to do it better

Congratulations, you made it through my rant alive! As a thank you (and a peace offering), here are the most effective ways people get me to the coffee shop:

Creative compensation. Payment doesn’t always have to be money: introduce me to your network of potential clients or give me a testimonial for my website. One colleague leveraged her relationship at a super-fancy restaurant to get my entrepreneurship advice. Get creative about what you have to offer.
Reminding me I was once young and broke. I love mentoring — it reminds me of how far I’ve come and the magic of the discovery part of your career. If a chat could help relieve some of that “what am I doing with my life?!” uncertainty, I’ll do my best to be there.
Honesty. If you’ve really got nothing to offer, at least acknowledge that you’re making a significant request and that you respect my time, talent, and advice. A little flattery can get you a long way.