Marc Benioff had Steve Jobs. Ludwig van Beethoven had Joseph Haydn. And Socrates had Plato. Mentor-protégé relationships are as deep and rich as history itself. In our modern era of disruption — when ambitious upstarts are all about making their mark — mentorship is more important than ever.
Mentors can transfer decades of institutional knowledge to driven, talented newcomers. I’m not just talking about expertise in a particular organization. I’m referring to the institution of life — defined by history, perspective and wisdom.
Mentors As A Compass
You can ignore the rules and tear up blueprints all you want, and many disruptors have become legendary for doing just that. However, even disruptors need a compass to traverse unexpected peaks and valleys.
That’s what mentors are for.
After graduating, I was determined to break into the venture capital scene but didn’t know how I was going to reach my goal. Motivational speaker J. Loren Norris perfectly sums up how I addressed this need: “If you cannot see where you are going, ask someone who has been there before.”
My first big break was at a private equity firm where I trained under a visionary who built his fortune buying, improving and selling more than 50 businesses, each at over a $100 million valuation. One of his characteristics I admire most is that he’s self-made. He’s also a big reader, and I had a curriculum of 50 assigned books to read my first year working for him.
Then I went to work with another extremely successful leader, the head of private equity at an asset management firm. He was an absolute driver of excellence. I went on the road for two years, and we did everything from the seed stage to Series F deals. It was full hair-on-fire, crazy-level work.
When I started building my own companies, I continued to search for others who could help me continue to grow, especially in my earliest days as a newfound entrepreneur. I met leading industry figures who walked me through situational case studies, and it’s a practice I continue to this day.
You don’t ever grow out of the need for mentorship and growth. Stay hungry, and you’ll go far.
Seek Advice Early And Often
Most institutional knowledge is stored in our minds rather than written down. Not every great thinker has time to write a book about all the lessons they’ve learned over the years, much less sit down and try to find someone with whom to share their wisdom. That experience is an important link in the chain of knowledge transfer, which can be threatened if mentorship doesn’t continue to proliferate.
As an entrepreneur, you’ll encounter thousands of scenarios people have already faced, wrestled with and overcome. When you find those people, engage with them, and learn from their decades of knowledge and experience. You won’t be able to find that anywhere else.
Finding the right mentor is easier said than done, however. The relationship requires the same trust and chemistry found in close friendships, as it requires you to be comfortable sharing some of your deepest concerns. Network constantly and relentlessly. A 15-minute chat over coffee could lead to a lifetime of invaluable guidance.
Keep in mind that your mentors won’t always have personalities similar to your own. In fact, I believe some of the best mentors will have very different viewpoints and perspectives. It’s important for your growth as an entrepreneur and individual to seek out people who can give you a fresh take on problem-solving. Don’t feel offended or discouraged if mentors provide advice different from your own ideas. Experiment with them, and absorb the parts that work.
It’s also important to understand that having a mentor is not a passive experience. Mentees should put more effort into the relationship than mentors. Set regular times to meet with your mentor, and don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions keeping you up at night. Always take their advice genuinely, and demonstrate the wisdom they share in your work. They’ve devoted their time, effort and thoughts to help you further your own ambitions. If you can’t show that you’re taking their advice seriously, why should they invest in you?
Mentorship is critical to any entrepreneur looking to build big and think quickly. Seek out people who can help you do that. A little advice can change everything.
Paying It Forward
In this digital information age when all the world’s knowledge is supposedly indexed and searchable, younger generations might overlook the value of a traditional mentor. Not only should ambitious people seek mentors, but also those already in leadership positions should proactively reach out to promising protégés who could benefit from their knowledge and experience.
Leaders with decades of industry experience can also benefit considerably from strong relationships with the next generation. Mentors can gain a better understanding and respect for the advice they preach through strong mentee relationships, as well as new perspectives on how their strategies apply to up-and-coming ideas.
I’m a huge proponent of technology and its power to positively impact the future, but nothing can replace hands-on involvement. So my advice for leaders and managers — especially those who have personally benefited from mentorship — is to not wait for a promising employee to ask you. Reach out first. Let them know you’re available and interested in fostering the next generation of leaders and changemakers.