Get a mentor. It’s great. Mentoring’s great. Blah blah blah. Yeah, thanks. I know it’s helpful. But most people don’t have them. At least not in the traditional sense.
George Costanza: I still don’t understand this. Abby has a mentor?
Jerry Seinfeld: Yes. And the mentor advises the protégé.
George: Is there any money involved?
George: So what’s in it for the mentor?
Jerry: Respect, admiration, prestige.
George: Pssh. Would the protégé pick up stuff for the mentor?
Jerry: I suppose if it was on the protege’s way to the mentor, they might.
George: Laundry? Dry cleaning?
Jerry: It’s not a valet, it’s a protégé.
(Seinfeld, Episode no. 140, www.seinfeldscripts.com)
Opportunities for pickup service notwithstanding, there are a lot of benefits to having a mentor. We gain new perspectives and ideas to force us out of our comfort zone. Or we get advice from someone who’s gone through similar struggles and understands the challenges ahead. A mentor demonstrates the behaviors and values that we hope to emulate. And can often provide objective feedback. Assuming of course, you have a good, non-George Costanza mentor.
And as I see employees develop, there’s a clear distinction between the ones that take advantage of mentoring relationships and those that don’t. The advantage is similar to seeing how well-coached athletes develop. It’s like watching the New England Patriots play my Buffalo Bills. It’s just not fair.
So with all of these benefits, we would expect every employee to have a mentor. Except they don’t. Very few actually do. If you do–congratulations–you’re in an exclusive group.
But most people aren’t that fortunate. Formalized mentoring programs haven’t been a priority for companies. As there continues to be more competing demands on the time of experienced professionals, available time for mentoring is reduced.
It’s also not a behavior that we reinforce. We’re too short-sighted. We’re looking for immediate pay-offs. So management reinforces efforts that lead to tangible results. We shouldn’t be surprised when that drives focus away from mentoring.
So what can we do? Mentoring obviously has benefits. Our careers would thank us for the investment. But I don’t recommend that we just wait for companies to realize the error of their ways and restart mothballed mentoring programs.
So we just need to find one on our own. Or better yet, find many.
Everyone’s a Potential Mentor
On his podcast, Tim Ferriss often asks guests who comes to mind when they hear the word “successful.” And there’s a couple consistent answers. Bill Gates has been mentioned multiple times. But for the most part the answer varies widely based on the individual. I suppose that’s why it’s a good question.
And when I consider what success means to me, I rarely come up with just one person. It’s often a mix of people who’ve demonstrated the positive behaviors that I’m hoping to emulate.
It made me think of everyone that I consider a positive role model. Some I work with and see frequently. Others are friends I see less often. Some others I’ve emailed online but haven’t had the pleasure of meeting, and likely never will. And still others I’ve only read their books and articles. They have no idea I exist–although in some cases–not for my lack of trying. Hi Tim!
There’s no reason we need to limit ourselves to one mentor. We’re surrounded by people to learn from. And thanks to technology, our access to new and alternative perspectives is available at a moment’s notice. Given this trove of potential support, we’d be foolish to limit ourselves to just one mentoring viewpoint.
Get the Benefits of Mentoring without the Awkwardness
They encourage us to talk with our role models and sign them up as members of our mentoring team.
It’s good advice. The only problem is that I’ll never do it.
It’s awkward. It’s intimidating to ask someone to be your mentor. Much less be part of a mentorship team. Or offer them a seat on my personal board of directors. I’d rather go back to high school and re-subject myself to the embarrassment of asking girls to prom.
If that works for you, great. For me, I don’t think the phrase, “will you be my mentor?” will ever come out of my mouth. I imagine the people responding in the same way as those prospective prom dates, with “Get out of here you weirdo.”
But we can have all the benefits of mentoring teams without having these awkward conversations.
We don’t need to sign people up for a long-term commitment to get the benefits of mentoring. I learn a ton from Seth Godin, but I’ve never asked him to join my mentoring team. And I doubt that Winston Churchill’s going to start paying club dues anytime soon. Regardless of whether they realize it, they both fill spots on my mentoring team. And have significantly helped my growth.
Assemble a Mentoring Dream Team
We all have people we admire. People we look up to. People who exhibit the tendencies that we want to demonstrate. We’re surrounded by them every day.
I started with a list of people I truly respect. It included former managers and people I’ve worked with. It had coaches and friends. It had Derek Sivers, Amanda Palmer, and Adam Grant. It had Michael Faraday, Alexander Hamilton, and Jackie Robinson.
Then I tried to capture why I respect them. It’s never tied to their accomplishments. It’s always tied to the values they exhibit. And the behaviors they demonstrate.
There’s no shortage of others who’ve accomplished great things. But those successes are meaningless unless they’ve accomplished them in a way I would be proud of.
If accomplishments and success were the only prerequisite, more of us would look up to Mylan chairman Robert Coury. Or Lance Armstrong.
But we don’t. Because we don’t simply want that shallow version of success. And taking the step to highlight the specific behaviors that I hope to exemplify, helped me better see the areas where I want to grow.
We rarely look up to those who are merely acting as we are now. It’s usually someone who’s demonstrating a behavior we’re striving to implement as well. What better compass to show us where we want to grow?
I ended with 23 different character traits that I hope to demonstrate as a father, husband, friend, and leader. And each trait includes multiple mentors and examples. Some I see every day and ask their advice. One’s a senior manager who demonstrates a sense of control regardless of the situation. Another is a brand new engineer who instills a sense of pride in everything she does. Others are authors and scientists that I can read and gain insights into the lessons they’ve accumulated over a lifetime of experiences. A true dream team of people I hope to learn from.
Foster an Abundance Mentality
Most articles will tell us to reciprocate value to each mentor. Easier said than done. And the prospect of accumulating a bunch of debts would likely keep me from initiating these relationships from the start.
And it leads to a scarcity mindset. One where we overly focus on trading value for value. Which makes mentoring very zero sum. And by default limits our overall growth.
So I try to develop an abundance mentality. Help others. Help anyone I can. It doesn’t need to be reciprocated one for one.
I doubt Seth Godin wants me to pay him back directly. I’m sure he’d be much happier if I embraced his teaching spirit and used his lessons to help others grow. (And maybe buy his books.)
If I can help a mentor, then wonderful. I’m happy to do it. But when I’m advising someone, my only real hope is that my advice is beneficial. That’s where we should focus. And the reciprocity will work itself out eventually.
Don Keough, former president of Coca-Cola, recalls Peter Drucker’s request at the close of their consulting sessions to be, “Don’t tell me you had a wonderful meeting with me. Tell me what you are going to do on Monday that’s different.”
People give advice to help. They want to have a positive influence. We reciprocate their efforts by valuing their advice and working hard to implement it. By making a change on Monday. That’s the return that’s expected.
After coming through this exercise, I’m much better prepared to learn from the knowledge and behaviors that surround me every day.
And I’m much better equipped to help mentor others. Which is the best benefit of all.