If you want to learn what it takes to become a great mentor, one place to look is at the great mentors who’ve influenced your success. As a motivational speaker, my mentors (and I’ve had several including Jim Kouzes, Tom Peters, and Terry Pearce) had more confidence in my abilities than I did, and always looked for opportunities to shove me into the training and speaking spotlight. If you don’t think you have a mentor yet, try looking at others who’ve achieved their goals and see what they learned from their mentors. At a minimum, I think you’ll find that great mentors do three things that conveniently all start with the letter E – they encourage, equip, and exemplify. I’ll highlight one in this blog and the others in subsequent blogs. So read on and then stay tuned.
Great mentors help you see the possibilities of your personal portrait when your life is still a mostly blank canvas.
For instance, Deborah Sweeney, the CEO of MyCorporation, learned early that she should never settle for less than her best. Why? Because her mentor, who happened to be her mother, stressed that message.
“She always told me, ‘This or something better,’” Sweeney said. “This had a real influence on how I approached my college and job. I was unwilling to settle for anything less than my highest potential.”
Marina Lau, a senior marketing manager at JotForm, says one of her key mentors provided all sorts of practical advice, but it was all built on a foundation of creating a strong sense of inner confidence.
“She taught me that even before you can accumulate decades of experience, it’s important to always remember your value as an employee, because you inherently come with a unique set of skills, continually cultivated over time,” Lau said. “Instilling that confidence in me as a young professional has been an invaluable experience.”
Mentors don’t just encourage with words, but with actions. When Ruth Wilson first opened Brightmont Academy, a private school for grades 6-12, she found encouragement from Dr. Albert Reichert, a developmental pediatrician. In addition to helping her work through specific challenges, Dr. Reichert put his reputation on the line by recommending Wilson’s new school to families under his care.
“More than one parent expressed skepticism about my age,” Wilson said, “but most acquiesced based on Dr. Reichert’s endorsement of my program.”
The good doctor believed in his protégé, and all great mentors encourage with words and actions the inspired confidence. So don’t just tell people you believe in them. Show them.
Few things are more frustrating than trying to take on a project without the right equipment or tools. Try setting up a tent without the poles. Or building a swing set without the nuts and bolts. Try building a tree fort with no hammer or nails (not that I’ve done that).
So what tools should you offer as a mentor? Whatever your protégé needs to succeed, of course.
Mentors might equip their protégés with specific skills like how to build healthy relationships, how to use the company’s project management software, how to become a leader, what to look for when reading a P&L, or, in the case of Adwoa Dadzie, how to think big.
“I needed to build my ability to think about broad impact,” said Dadzie, the VP of HR for a Fortune 500 company. “As an HR leader, what I do for one person can have long-term vast impact on all employees in a work group, in a building, and, potentially, in a company. I needed to learn how to think more strategically about the impact of my actions and my decisions to minimize negative impact and maximize the positive ones.”
The tools mentors provide aren’t always skills-based. Sometimes they look like an email introduction to a key contact or a word of advice on dealing with an important stakeholder. And they often come in the form of pearls of wisdom and nuggets of advice than become engrained in someone’s thinking, equipping them for challenges for years to come.
When Steven Benson was starting out at Google, his first sales manager, Mark Flessel, stressed the importance of focusing on the needs of his customer’s business. “Then I could map my solution to what makes them successful,” said Benson, who now is founder and CEO of Badger Maps. That “what do others need” mindset now plays a role in how he builds his business.
If you’ve had a great mentor, you’ve probably experienced this. You’re facing a situation and thinking through what to do when suddenly your mentor’s words spring freshly into your mind. Live those words out. And pass them on to someone else.
I’ve never met great mentors, or heard of any for that matter, who didn’t walk the walk as well or better than they talked the talk. Mentors aren’t perfect, of course, but they teach hard work by working hard. They teach great listening skills by listening well. They teach perseverance by persevering.
The most important mentor in Katherine Sullivan’s life, for instance, never finished high school, but Sullivan’s now 94-year-old grandfather worked hard to provide for his family during the Great Depression, fought for his country in World War II, and became a successful business owner.
“As a young girl, I watched his work ethic and success drive him in life and business,” said Sullivan, CEO of Marketing Solved. “This was directly transferred to me … Seeing his hard work taught me that I earn everything I get and nothing is ever handed to you.”
Denise Supplee, co-founder of both SparkRental.com and SnapLandlord.com, watched her father build a business by taking risks, so she learned not to fear the challenges that come with entrepreneurship.
“It is easy to speak about things you want to do, but you must take action,” she said. “He built a business empire against all odds.”
No matter what you preach as a mentor, the message that will have the biggest impact will come from how you live – your attitude, your sense of humor, your commitment to excellence, your investment in others, your sense of self-worth, your gratitude, your … well, your everything.
It’s interesting that when I speak to people about the mentors in their lives they often refer to people who weren’t formally mentors. They were just people who invested in them out of love and lived in a manner worth emulating. You never know who is watching, so the time to lead by example is now … and always.