Do you have a mentor? Think on that question for a second. If you’re like most professionals today, you don’t, or worse, you think you do, but you really don’t.
My sophomore year of college, I took a class called BA-3000 (at least I think it was, it might have been BA-3015), taught by Mike Henle. The class was structured around helping you become a more valuable and attractive asset for a company. We covered everything from resume writing skills, to the value of internships, presentation skills and yes, how to find and leverage mentors. I didn’t know it then, but many years later, that class has proven to be incredibly valuable as I’ve grown my career.
So what makes for a mentor and why are they important? Let’s start with the first part of that question. In my opinion, too often we blur the lines between advisors and mentors. Both are valuable, but they are not the same.
I have several advisors, ranging from my dad, who I seek out for both advice in life and work, to Bob Gilbreath, the former head of one of the best agencies I’ve ever worked with. I call them, frequently, for advice and council. The scope of that advice is generally limited to specific situations and decisions that must be made in the next 90 days, that will impact the next 12 months.
To borrow from a movie analogy, good advisors are like Robert Duvall’s character, Tom Hagen, in The Godfather. But, similar to a presidential cabinet, you can’t have an infinite number of advisors. You instead need a small, but mighty group. I limit myself to no more 12 advisors. My advisor group is comprised of 1 former agency president, 2 former professors, 3 former colleagues Sr. to me, 2 current CEOs, 1 VC head, 1 ad tech founder, 1 great dad and of course my own father. My advisory group is diverse in background, thinking, industry, age, gender, ethnicity and availability. All of them, at some point in my career, have enabled me to understand and consider a needed alternate perspective.
Advisors often provide council to help in the short term and they can be changed out over time. My list of advisors today looks a lot different today than it did 5 years ago, let alone 15 years ago. Where as my list of advisors is large and diverse, my list of mentors is small. There are only 3. If advisors are akin to Tom Hagen, in The Godfather, mentors are The Don.
Mentors take an interest in you. Yes, you. They have an interest in your growth, your advancement, your evolution and your success. They are in fact investing their time in you. With time being the only resource you don’t get back, for someone to spend their time helping you over many years, makes for a pretty special relationship. To me a mentor is 3 very important and distinct things:
1. Coach: they’re helping you improve your skills in a way that’s designed to maximize your potential and help you reach your long term goals.
2. Teacher: a good mentor unlocks your mind. They stretch your to think about things you haven’t considered and to confront challenges in new ways. Beyond time, the most valuable resource is wisdom. Mentors make a decision to transfer their knowledge, in hopes of improving your wisdom.
3. Measuring Stick: mentors are smart. Really smart. Part of what keeps them so smart is they have mentors of their own. Every time you think you’re closing the gap between the two of you, your mentor drops a knowledge bomb that makes you realize now much more you still have to grow, evolve and improve.
I see mentorship dying a fast death. The skills are no longer being taught by parents, educational institutions and managers. Our Tinder-Snapchat world, where we expect instant feedback and impact is at odds with the thoughtful, lengthy, patient investment needed for mentorship to thrive. We’ve traded the long term value of mentorship for the quick fix that advisors provide. This is a mistake. It’s akin to spending your paycheck on the immediate itch you have to satisfy (aka yet another outfit from Nordstrom, despite all the outfits you have from Nordstrom, hanging in your closet, with the tags still on), instead of investing it into the future.
If that weren’t bad enough, the pool of people who know how to provide mentorship is shrinking, exponentially.
It’s been more than a decade since I graduated from “the U” (which by the way is the stupidest of all university descriptions, since it in fact, can mean just about any college out there) and I still stay in touch with Mike Henle. I got more from that class, than just about any class I took over my 3 years at The University of Minnesota. I’ve tried to pay it back, whenever I can.
Every year I look to be an advisor to no more than 12 people. This allows me to give back in a way that hopefully helps and impacts many people over my career.
But, when it comes to mentorship, I never have more than 3 mentees. What I’ve found over the past decade is a blatant disregard for the value of mentorship. Several of the people I had been mentoring for years, started treating the relationship like an advisor scenario. They were too strapped for time, lacked vision on what they wanted out of life and simply put, were not making me feel good about the time I was investing in them.
I dropped them. If they weren’t going to take mentorship seriously, I wasn’t going to invest my time and wisdom, in them. From 2008 – 2012 I had at least 2 mentees. Today, I have 0, by my own choice. That change saddens me because it speaks to an inability to see the forest for the trees. It also means we’re building a pipeline of “leaders” who lack a North Star of what they want to become.
Mentorship is valuable. It’s an art. We need, not only more mentors, but more people ready to invest in having a mentor.
It’s never too late to be a mentor or to find one. Think about it.