This essay was originally published on January 14th, 2006 for Early To Rise
A man looks back on his life and says, “I wish I knew then what I know now.”
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 using a mentor.
With the advice, experience, and support of an experienced person in your field, you can avoid the most common mistakes you are likely to make. You overcome the stickiest problems and find shortcuts to success.
It doesn’t really matter where you are along your career path, getting yourself a good mentor will be enormously valuable for you.
A survey commissioned by the Elliot Leadership Institute at Johnson & Wales University confirms this. For this particular study, researchers surveyed senior executives and middle managers in the food service and hospitality industry about leadership competencies. What they discovered was that leaders who had been mentored felt the experience invaluable. They said their mentors helped them build all kinds of leadership skills, including decision-making, strategic thinking, planning, coaching, and effectively managing others.
In Early to Rise, I’ve often talked about the mentors in my own business life. From Leo, my first post-college boss, I learned the importance of persistence and dogged determination. Leo once had me call Honda Motors more than 100 times to convince them to give us a new engine after the one we had died (from lack of oil). We hadn’t a single, sensible argument in our favor, but that didn’t stop Leo from pushing me. Finally, after I got all the way to the top, the Honda executive leadership decided they had wasted too much time on us and gave in. I didn’t feel good about getting something we didn’t deserve, but I never forgot that lesson in persistence.
From Joel, my second major mentor, I learned a great deal. The first lesson he taught me – by firing the lady who wanted to get me fired – was that a good leader needs to surround himself with the strongest people he can find. Another lesson I learned soon thereafter had to do with the fundamental nature of business.
“Until you make a sale,” Joel explained patiently, “nothing else happens.”
From Bill, a client, partner, and part-time mentor, I discovered – relatively late in my career – two important business secrets that have made me a better leader. For one thing, I no longer feel compelled to solve every problem put at my feet. I’ve watched Bill ignore countless squabbles and come out much the better for it. Before getting involved in a dispute these days, I ask myself, “Can these people eventually come up with a satisfactory solution themselves?” If the answer is affirmative, I do nothing.
Thanks to Bill, I’m also now a big believer in product quality. Having mastered the secrets of selling through my relationship with Joel, I tended to underestimate the importance of the product. I was one of those marketers who actually wanted to sell snow to Eskimos. In working with Bill, whose sole focus is always on quality, I’ve seen how much better a business becomes when you stress quality.
You probably have no idea what you need to learn to make the next leap forward in your career. But someone who’s been there and done it before does. Getting the help of that person will make a very big difference in your future.
How to Find Your Mentor
Look around your industry to find five successful business leaders who retired within the past two to five years. This two-to-five year timeframe is important. If they’ve been retired for any longer, they could be out of touch. Any sooner, and they’re not yet bored enough with retirement to miss thinking about work.
Write each of these five people a short letter expressing genuine admiration for their careers. Compliment them on specific achievements. Then ask for advice on your own career.
Offer an invitation to go to lunch. Or, if they’re located out of your local area, ask for a 15-minute phone call. And don’t – I repeat, don’t – offer them any compensation for their help … yet. Odds are, at least one of the five will respond positively to your invitation and give you a little of his time. If you find that you get along, you’ve got yourself a mentor.
Making the Most of Your Relationship With Your Mentor
Once you’ve found your mentor, make a list of the goals you want to work on with him. What do you want out of the relationship? What do you feel you need to learn? What can this person best teach you?
Prior to your first conversation, outline what you want to achieve from your time together. And keep track of your progress. Are you achieving what you set out to do? It’s important that you set and monitor your progress, because your mentor most likely won’t.
How to Make Sure You’ve Got a Good Mentor
A mentorship is a relationship built on learning. Your mentor should be your learning coach: someone you can talk to and trust. A good mentor should provide you with advice, feedback, and support. He should help you focus on your goals and give you direction that helps you succeed more quickly than you could alone.
A good mentor should help you learn the secrets to success in your field of expertise. (That’s why finding one in your field is so important.)
Your mentor should offer advice on skills he’s found valuable. He should counsel you concerning various opportunities in your industry and different paths to success.
According to an article in Black Enterprise, a good mentor won’t tell you how to do your job. He should give you feedback and share his personal experiences, but not inundate you with lots of unsolicited advice. And a good mentor shouldn’t be making decisions for you that you could have made for yourself. “Your mentor is not a savior,” the article says.
I agree. If you’re going to learn from your mentor, he can’t come up with every single solution for you … nor should you expect him to. Your mentor should act as a sounding board and as a trusted advisor and counselor. I like the way business writer Ron Yudd put it: “[Mentors] hold the flashlight so others can see the path.”
Respect the Mentor-Mentee Relationship
To maintain your relationship with your mentor, you must recognize his value and reward him for it. Keep in mind that the kind of advice he is giving you is likely to have the most profound effect on your career. Although you can’t measure the financial value of any specific suggestion (i.e., “Stop spending so much time on this fulfillment project. Get to work on improving your advertising.”), you can bet that in the long run the effect will be very significant.
Show him you appreciate what he is doing for you. Tell him, in specific terms, what you have learned from him and thank him every time he meets with you. Remember, the psychological reward of knowing he is helping you succeed is his primary reward. That said, the time has now come to offer to compensate him for his time with money.
How much? That’s up to you. Pay him no more than you feel comfortable paying him and no less than he thinks is fair. If you can’t find a number in between those two figures, find another mentor.
One of my current mentors, Sid, gets a check of several thousand dollars every time I spend time with him. On a per-hour basis, he’s extremely well paid. But for the help he gives me in making key leadership and wealth-building decisions, the $30,000 to $40,000 a year I invest in him is a bargain.
Consider Using Multiple Mentors
If one mentor is valuable, multiple mentors can prove to be invaluable. This makes enormous sense when you consider it. It gives you not only the wisdom of one person who has been successfully doing what he’s doing for years and years, but also the perspective of comparing the ideas and judgments of several experts.
Adopting a mentor or mentors requires a temporary abnegation of pride. Or perhaps something beyond that – the wisdom to understand that one’s own ideas are not always the best ideas.
I consider this to be a truly great secret of success.
“A general rule of etiquette is that one apologizes for the unfortunate occurrence, but the unthinkable is unmentionable.”
– Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”)