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Mentors: What to say if someone asks you out for coffee

(MoneyWatch) As I wrote in my post on Sheryl Sandberg's book last week, many young people have been told that finding a mentor is key to professional success. The problem is that they've also decided that the right way to get a mentor is to ask people out for coffee. Let's say you're on the receiving end of one such invitation. Maybe the person even wants to "pick your brain." What should you say?

If the person is someone whose work you've noticed and been impressed by, say yes. You probably do want to mentor this person. Meeting for coffee is a great way to move the relationship forward.

But what if that's not the case? Maybe you don't know the person, or you do, but you've yet to be blown away. What then? There are a few things you can do.

1. Maintain a FAQ list. What should people know who are trying to get a promotion in your organization? What professional networking groups are good to join? How did you spend your first two years at your company? How do you "balance" work and life? There are certain questions that people ask over and over again. Make up a document with answers to these questions and send it out to anyone who asks. This won't entirely resolve the issue, but at least you won't waste time answering the same questions over and over again.

2. Schedule a short phone call first. Going out for coffee takes time -- time to get to and from the coffee place, and the time it takes to consume your coffee. A 10-minute phone call can help you suss out if you would want to spend that kind of time with this person, or not.

3. Have the person come to your office. At least you're not on the hook for travel time this way.

4. Try to include people in your routines. I read once about an executive who asked people who wanted her to mentor them to come work out with her early in the morning. She got company on her run, and she didn't have to take time away from her previous commitments. Plus, if people were up for it, that probably showed a certain seriousness she admired.

What do you say when people want to go for coffee?

Photo courtesy flickr user BocaDorada

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