The Power of Mentoring

Dan Marcus, TDC Consulting Inc., Amherst, Wisconsin

(Click here to see the story as it appears in June's Modern Casting.)

You never know where genuine wisdom is going to come from. Consider that a client informed me last November he was going to be flown in a helicopter to the top of a remote mountain so he could join a group that had arranged to ski the fresh, avalanche-prone powder. Consider also that, unlike the others in the group, this guy was not an expert skier. Rather than anything resembling wisdom, I was sure he was going to come back with his entire body in a cast. Instead, he came back whole and eager to tell me who his companions were and the great insight they had shared with him.

It turns out his fellow skiers were a group of highly successful entrepreneurs who liked nothing better in the evening than to imbibe and expound their philosophies about wealth, business and success. And from that revelry a consensus emerged about the ingredient that had made the biggest impact on their ability to achieve extreme business success—the right mentor.  

It’s not just the consensus among those skiers. For example, one of the most successful business leaders of our time, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, said not long ago, “If you are looking to make your way in business, find a mentor.”

As all CEOs know, it’s lonely at the top, and the right mentor can help mitigate that loneliness and greatly enhance a mentee’s chances for success. But finding the right mentor isn’t easy, as the right one must be sought beyond those in the mentee’s existing circle of close contacts. In fact, the right mentor is one who has a quite different perspective and knowledge base than those the mentee already knows; he or she must bring something new and catalyzing to the mentoring relationship.

The right mentor is also a teacher, not just a talker. Moreover, the right mentor has a solid reputation for developing talent, relentlessly pursues excellence, and is a current practitioner with up-to-date knowledge.  The right mentor can introduce the mentee into a new network of like-minded and highly successful business leaders and help the mentee learn things not learned in school. He or she possesses the skill, finesse and courage to allow the mentee to fail in safe ways. Some of life’s most valuable lessons can only be learned by failing, and mentors who are overprotective of their mentees can be little more than enablers.

Above all else, mentors must be honest and candid; they must possess the courage to speak the truth. For example, some CEOs are “operations” or “finance” types whose companies (and bottom lines) need them to be jolted out of their narrow, parochial ruts. Only the right mentor can do this.  Others who have been spoiled by wealth and/or power need to learn the truth about themselves and their poor performing companies before they can be truly successful. Only the right mentor can deliver such a message.

My mentor, Joel, recognized that most people thought he was mean and knew that he and his Joel-isms were often misunderstood. In the course of mentoring me, he made it clear that his words were not to be taken personally and that in similar circumstances he would deliver the same message in the same way to his own mother. He was simply telling the truth and teaching me what I needed to learn, no matter whether I wanted to learn it, because his unimpeachable integrity would not allow him to do otherwise. Now, that’s the right mentor.

If finding the right mentor is difficult, and it is, I’ve also come to know that it’s equally difficult for many to accept mentoring. CEOs almost always say they are eager to learn the truth and even that they are especially keen to hear perspectives different from their own and from what others are telling them. As it turns out, few are truly open-minded about this. Many really want to hear only what they want to hear, not what they asked (or needed) to hear. Prospective mentees must be genuinely willing, even eager to learn and change, or the mentoring relationship will be remembered most for opportunities lost.

Continuing our exploration of contemporary HR management, this column suggests HR executives should be working to establish mentoring programs in their companies for the business’s best and brightest. Likewise, the best CEOs, whether young or not-so-young, should consider being mentored because the right mentor can be an energizing and enriching source of personal and professional growth. Moreover, the right mentor can be a springboard to levels of business success that the mentee might otherwise never have thought possible.    

Keep the conversation going. Reach the author at tdcmetal@wi-net.com to comment on this or any CEO Journal column or to suggest future topics.

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