“It can be no dishonor to learn from others when they speak good sense.”– Sophocles
Achieve More in Your Career – Faster and Easier – With a Mentor, Part 1
It can take a decade or more to become the successful person you want to be. But you can shorten your learning curve – even drastically curtail it – by getting advice and support from people that have more experience than you.
The results of a study commissioned by the Elliot Leadership Institute at Johnson & Wales University are typical. Researchers surveyed senior executives and middle managers in the foodservice and hospitality industry. What they discovered was that a vast majority of those who had been mentored felt that the experience had helped them build all kinds of leadership skills. Skills such as decision-making, strategic thinking, planning, coaching, and effectively managing others.
All the research surveys and articles I’ve read on business mentorship make the same point: It works.
Of course, there are different types of mentor/mentee relationships.
There is a traditional relationship, where a senior person sort of adopts a younger person and gives him/her advice and support for an extended period of time. And there is a kind of temporary or transactional relationship, where a knowledgeable person answers questions or gives advice to someone he/she doesn’t know on a one-time basis.
Most studies on mentoring are focused on traditional relationships. And these, as I said, work very well. But temporary mentoring can be worthwhile, too.
I’ve had three major mentors in my career from whom I learned a great deal. But I’ve also had dozens of equally important one-time interactions with experienced entrepreneurs and investment experts.
I’m going to talk about the two types of mentorships in two parts. Today, I’ll talk about traditional mentorships – and in part 2 of this essay, I’ll tackle transactional mentorships.
What I Learned From Leo
From Leo, my first post-college boss (and eventual partner), I learned the importance of persistence and determination. I learned that I could sometimes accomplish goals and objectives that seemed unattainable merely by being doggedly indefatigable.
I will never forget, for example, the trauma and the triumph of the Honda.
We had a little company car, a Honda, for random errands in the city. One day, the engine seized. The mechanic explained that if you don’t put oil in the engine for a month after the indicator light has gone on, this is to be expected.
Leo didn’t see it that way.
He had me call Honda Motors every single day. My job was to convince them that it was their responsibility to pay for replacing the engine. It didn’t seem to bother him that I thought it was futile. He kept assuring me that I would succeed. “You are a winner, Mark,” he’d almost shout at me. “You can make this happen!”
Well, I’ll be damned if (after what might have been six months of calling Honda) I didn’t end up at the top – with a senior executive that probably took the call only to find out what kind of nut I was.
He listened politely and then calmly explained what I already knew. I think he thought that getting a “no” from him would be the reward I had been looking for and I would stop harassing them. In fact, were it not for Leo, he would have been right. I was a 20-something new-hire in a tiny company talking to a VP of Honda.
But there was Leo.
So I told the VP the truth: that I was flattered and grateful for his attention, but I was employed by a maniac who literally could not take no for an answer… which is why I needed him to give me the number of his boss so I could call him the following day.
He was flabbergasted (and told me so) – but he gave the okay for Honda to pay for the new engine.
My takeaway from this was not that I should try to get things I don’t deserve by being endlessly annoying. Thanks to Leo, the experience of forcing myself to make those phone calls – believing they were futile and then finally succeeding – gave me core confidence about my ability to persist that I don’t believe I would have had, even today.
What I Learned From JSN
From JSN, my second major mentor, I witnessed another version of what determination can do, but I learned other lessons from him, too – lessons about what a business must do to survive and prosper.
The first lesson JSN taught me – by firing a woman who at that time was running his business – is that the rules that work for big corporations don’t always apply to new ventures.
This woman had held a senior position in one of the largest publishing companies in the world. That’s why JSN hired her. He would raise the money for the business newsletters we were publishing. She would do everything else.
She was good at getting our newsletters written and out the door, and she was great at making sure everything was done right and documented. But she didn’t know anything about how to market products when you don’t have a multimillion-dollar budget. She was spending money on good-looking ads, but the money JSN was bringing in was flowing out with negative ROIs.
The day after JSN fired her, he brought me into his office and told me that he was going to rely on me to help him grow the business. I felt totally unprepared. I had been hired a month earlier as an executive editor.
“Because you are the only person she didn’t like,” he explained. “She wanted you gone because she felt you were a threat to her. The moment she recommended firing you, I knew I was going to fire her.”
Then he said, “Okay. Now lets you and me talk about starting this business.”
“Starting?” I said. “I thought we were already in business.”
“No,” he said. “A business isn’t started until the first profitable sale is made.”
Through trial and error, we figured out how to do that. Eleven years later, when we sold the company, sales had climbed over $100 million.
What I Learned From BB
From BB, a client/partner, I learned, relatively late in my career, many additional business secrets – one of which has been very, very valuable.
It was a lesson in management.
JSN was very much an alpha dog and he managed his business-like one. When I came to work with BB, I unconsciously brought a bit of that alpha dog with me.
I had been brought in to run the business, and the way to do that, I believed, was to figure out what to do and then make sure everyone did it. It took me less than a week to realize that BB had no interest in having his business run that way.
His way was to hire smart young people, find desks for them to sit at, and tell them to do whatever they wanted to do. At the time, he was the sole producer and earner for the company – and he did it very well, bringing in millions every year. So his laissez-faire management style wasn’t as crazy as it seemed.
I was tempted to try the my-way-or-the-highway style I had perfected with JSN, but I did my best to imitate what BB did, knowing that I would still be far more “directive” than he would ever be.
I soon discovered that there are many invisible benefits to managing your business (really, your employees) his way. The most obvious and immediate is that it’s much easier. You don’t have to solve every problem and design every strategy. You can “shirk off” (BB’s words) some of those responsibilities to others.
Another benefit of laissez-faire management (that I didn’t fully understand until years later) is that it tends to weed out weaker players and advance stronger ones. Because decisions are constantly pushed downward, people at the bottom get more experience than they would in a typical hierarchy. Laggards fall behind and eventually disappear. Superstars emerge.
Yet another big and unexpected benefit is greater diversity. I don’t mean racial/ethnic/gender diversity. (The invisible benefits of that kind of diversity are mostly negative.) In giving employees more freedom to make decisions and take on jobs and make suggestions, you naturally create a business with more – and more diverse – ideas. Not just about protocols and procedures but also about the key elements of entrepreneurial growth. How to sell potential customers more and better versions of what they want.
Thanks to BB’s example, I have had the rare experience of watching a company grow its revenues by a factor of more than a thousand. I am absolutely sure that it could not have happened if I had tried to grow the business any other way.
What You Can Learn From Your Mentor
Traditional mentorships work because the benefits of the relationship are shared. The mentee advances his/her career by following the good advice of the mentor, and the mentor shares in the increased value of the business as the mentee contributes to it. At the same time, the mentor has the satisfaction of helping someone else succeed, while the mentee has the comfort and support of someone with power and privilege.
The benefits are so many and so obvious that you would think every employee would make it a priority to find a mentor. In fact, most never do. They plod along at their jobs, trying to move forward. But they don’t really know what to do and what not to do because they are in new territory and they refuse to ask for advice from someone that’s been there before.
That’s dumb, but I understand it. I have a hard time asking for help. (I can’t even ask for directions when I’m lost.) But I managed to acquire three great business mentors in my life, and I think I did it because I had a realistic view of my role in the relationship.
Until Leo saw that I was willing to make those hundreds of phone calls, he had no reason to believe that I could be anything more than an assistant for him. But when I achieved the crazy goal he set for me, he began to treat me differently. He saw me as a young man that could help him grow his business. He began to treat me as a mentee.
Something similar happened with JSN. He recognized my potential early on. But until I showed him that I was committed to helping him achieve his goals for the business, he didn’t fully trust me. Less than a year after I earned his trust, I was a minor partner. He told me he was going to make me a millionaire. Several years later, I was.
If you’re at the beginning or even the middle of your career, a traditional mentorship can definitely accelerate your progress. But don’t expect to get all the benefits without giving something in return. Reciprocity is the foundation of every healthy relationship. It’s true of mentorships too.
Your mentor is investing his time in you in the expectation that, as you become a more valuable employee, you will do whatever you can to repay him. In most cases, that will happen by your good work, by making his job easier and/or more profitable. But sometimes you will be able to repay him by helping him out if and when you pass him by.
In Part 2 of this essay, I’ll be talking about transactional mentorships with powerful businesspeople – and how you can benefit from their wisdom, contacts, and benevolence.