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January 3, 2016

How Finding a True Mentor Can Change Your Life

Why Would Anyone Need a Mentor?

Do you ever feel lost, overwhelmed, forgotten, have a momentary lack of confidence or just not sure how you should approach a situation? You are not alone and help may only be a question away. This article looks at the role of a true mentor and how they can guide your throughout your career or new venture.

Take Your First steps to Finding a True Mentor

Take Your First steps to Finding a True Mentor

Let me start by saying that over the past few years, I have worked with entrepreneurs, innovators, and professionals of small, mid and large companies. During this time I have met and worked with many people with a range of skills, energy, attitude and integrity levels.

I can tell you without any doubts that almost everyone that I have met or observed could achieve more with just a little help from a true mentor. If you are wondering why I keep saying true mentor, just keep reading.

Definition of a True Mentor

I like to get straight to the point because writing is not one of my favorite things to do.
So I will tell you that based on over 30 years of mentoring and being mentored these are the traits I see in good mentors:

  1. A good listener and keen observer.
  2. Has been there/done that but has learned from their mistakes.
  3. Knows how to identify the positive traits in people and can build around these.
  4. Knows how to identify the negative factors in someone that could hinder their improvement.
  5. Understands there are a time and a place for all points of view and perspectives.
  6. Will tell you what you need to hear and not what you want to hear. A good mentor will get in your face when needed.
  7. Understands that the ability to communicate (verbal, written, expression) is the most important skill you can learn.
  8. Can guide and teach you based upon real experience.
  9. Wants you to be as better person/manager/executive/innovator/leader or whatever your goal is.
  10. Wants to help others because giving back brings a sense of fulfillment, enrichment and increase in their quality of life. They have no expectation of receiving anything in return.

Based upon the above ten traits the definition of a true mentor is (and you can quote me)

A true mentor is a person you respect for their knowledge, wisdom, integrity and perspective to help guide you and your ideas from concept to fruition. A true mentor does not seek remuneration, your success is enough.

To be fair, not everyone can guide you at all stages of your professional development or business venture. It is highly likely you will need to develop several mentor relationships as you progress.

Why People Need Mentors

As I mentioned before almost everyone needs a little bit of help. The unfortunate part is that too many people are:

  • Afraid to ask for help.
  • Do not know who to ask for help.
  • Have the I am the smartest person in the room disease and do not think they need anyone’s help.

How do you know you need mentoring?

How do you know if you or someone close to you needs mentoring? This is actually an easy question with a difficult solution.

Let us break this down into two categories; entrepreneurs and business professionals.

For Entrepreneurs

In the case of entrepreneurs the barrier is usually ego or greed. An easy question for an entrepreneur to ask themselves and answer is your new venture proceeding as planned? There are many reasons a new venture fails or struggles. In the end it comes down to planning and execution. The problem with a new venture is that the entrepreneurs at the top are the problem 99% of the time.

This may seem harsh but I cannot count high enough the number of start-up ventures that have either failed or continue to struggle years beyond when they should have launched their product all because the founder does not think that someone else can help or knows better than they do.

The opportunity for entrepreneurs is to plan obtaining a mentor(s) they will listen to very early in the planning stages. For anyone seeking
funding for a new venture this should be a requirement before a check is written.

For Business Professionals

For business professionals the question is more complex. We live in a more global world where the people that work for you, with you or that you work for may be in a different location or even a different country. Managing communication up, down and sideways is big challenge and a learnable skill.

People who find that they are stuck in one role, not moving up the corporate food chain, forgotten or on the verge of being fired have only one person to blame and that is themselves.

However, let me be clear, life is not always fair. Yes, you may have to work for someone without management skills or be put in a situation where you are made out to be in an unfavorable light. This is life but your life can change if you have the right energy, attitude and integrity.

Recognizing your situation and asking for help is the first step. Finding the right person or mentor to listen to the problems and opportunities you are facing is the second step. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is not.

In very small companies there may not be a person with the skills that can guide you so you may need to look outside the company to a similar company. This could also increase your marketability.

On the other hand, with a larger company you may not know who can help you. In addition, this problem is made even more complex by a lack of leadership along with managers and executives who are more interested in building kingdoms and self-preservation than helping others.

“A leader’s job is not to do the work for others, it’s to help others figure out how to do it themselves, to get things done, and to succeed beyond what they thought possible.”

Source:
Simon Sinek

How a Mentor May Help You

If you remember from above, the most important skill a mentor can help you with is the ability to communicate with others. This is because how you communicate with others determines how you are perceived.

For example, a poor communicator is rarely perceived as a leader or someone who can accomplish something that requires interaction with others.

In contrast an excellent communicator will be given more opportunities to prove their value. A good mentor will help you review how you communicate. They may also help:

  • Set achievable goals.
  • Review your approach to situations, problems and opportunities.
  • Suggest possible approaches and solutions.
  • Provide you with candid feedback on your efforts.
  • Suggest alternative approaches.

Mentors can have a variety of skills and contacts so there is nothing wrong with seeking out multiple mentors. However, it takes time to build a trusting relationship with a mentor. Hence asking multiple mentors for the same assistance can backfire and cause trust to be lost. Once the trust is gone, so is your relationship.

A mentor can be a co-worker, your boss, someone higher in the corporate food chain, a member of your Board of Directors or an outside party. The only thing that matters in choosing a mentor is that you respect each other and are willing to listen to each other.

Avoiding Bad Mentors

Choosing a mentor should be a conscious decision. A mentor must have your best interest in mind, not theirs. I have already noted many of the positive traits that can be found in true mentors. With that said there are four negative traits that should be avoided in selecting your mentor:

  1. Someone willing to mentor in return for payment: This type of mentor is far more likely to tell you what you want to hear than what you need to hear. This would include paid professionals/consultants and people such as university professors or organizations looking for an
    equity stake in a new venture.
  2. Someone with narcissistic tendencies: This is a person that is preoccupied with personal achievements, power, prestige and vanity.
  3. Someone who doesn’t listen to you or is unable to make time for you: There a lot of good people who would make excellent mentors but not everyone has the time to give you.
  4. Someone who is mentoring you because they have to as part of a mentoring program: A good mentor must have total buy-in to helping you without reservation. Mentors from corporate designated programs tend to be either hit or miss depending on why a person is helping and their experience level. The same can be said of organizations like SCORE where experience can vary greatly.

This by no means suggest that corporate or governmental programs are useless, but you really need to find out if they are helping you because you were assigned to them or if they see potential in you. A good mentor becomes a lifelong friend so choose them wisely.

How to Reach Out and Seek a Mentor

There are many ways to reach out to a potential mentor. If you already know the person you would like as a mentor, go talk to them. Have a candid conversation and explain that you are seeking guidance in your new venture/career and ask for their advice.

If you do not personally know the person, some of the successful ways I have seen or done include:

  • Asking for a referral from someone you trust or in your organization.
  • Attending a meeting, conference or presentation by someone you are interested in learning from. Meet them in person and again state that you have heard good things about them and ask a question seeking advice.
  • Calling the person, introducing yourself, saying you have heard good things about them and asking a question seeking advice. People love the initial acknowledgement.
  • Send them an email with a request to talk to them (using the same approach as above). But realize an email is impersonal and a response is less likely.

A key element to the above is to approach someone seeking advice (not help). Seeking advice is an acknowledgement of respect and a sign that you do not think you are the smartest person in the room.

Lastly, regardless of whether or not you know the person, you must take the first step. This is because if you are not willing to help yourself then why should someone else want to help you.

Does Mentoring Work? True Stories of Mentoring

I remember seeking my first mentor as a low level staffer, the person I wanted was a soft spoken but highly respected VP sitting about 10 feet away from me. But before I had the chance to approach him I was singled out by a new VP that had just joined the company to help with its turnaround.

The new VP had wandered by on the way to big bosses office and was glaring at everyone he passed and making statements that everyone would be fired if we did not shape up. I am not sure why I did it (probably a combination of inexperience and a lot of piss and vinegar) but I flipped him off. He did look stunned as he went into the big boss’s office.

The person I wanted as my mentor called me in his office about 30 minutes later and just looked at me and asked what the hell I was thinking. I replied that we are all good people and that the new VP should be looking for our strengths and not threatening everyone.

I could see the tension building in his face and was certain I was about to be fired. Instead, he told me to go see the new VP. To make a long story short, the new VP said he wanted people on his team that were not afraid to lose their job. He hired me as his special analyst on the spot and became my mentor for the next three years. He also promoted me 5 levels in three years.

Needless to say I got lucky and my first lesson from my new mentor was never be afraid to lose my job. This is a lesson that has served me well during my career in both my corporate and entrepreneur endeavors.

Sadly, my first mentor passed away a few years later but over the years I had other mentors at different companies. Some were quiet, some were stronger than others. But all of them took the time to help me communicate more effectively. This is something I have never forgotten.

More importantly, I also learned that teaching and coaching others to be better staff, managers and executives was extremely rewarding. To this endeavor I have dedicated much of my spare time over the years.

I have helped grow some very successful people as well as helped people accomplish specific goals. In fact one of my protégé’s hired me years later to help develop her staff as I did with her. This was probably the ultimate sign of respect from an individual who never forgot the value of mentorship.

I hope that you have found some value in this article about
mentors. Please feel free to share your stories of mentoring or being mentored and how they impacted your life.

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