Mentoring is the Secret Sauce

YodaLast month I gave a talk at Innovate Pasadena on mentoring. I shared some reflections on what it has meant to me to have mentors in my personal and work life, and what it means to me to be a mentor when I have the opportunity. I talked about my former staff members who still call me up, the new people whose journey I have joined, and how all that creates an ecosystem of mutual support, vibrant feedback loops, and trusted opinion testing.

It is worth noting given the inescapable subjectivity in this meditation that this is simply how I think about the world, one mentor’s opinion as it were, and not meant to be an encyclopedic statement for all worthy mentors at large. That said, here are some of the key ideas I covered:

What is mentoring? My definition: One person who has ideas and experience to offer engaging in a relationship with another person who has ideas and experience to offer. It’s a two-way street. If it’s not a relationship—which means give and take—it does not work.

What isn’t it? It isn’t me making the hard decisions for you that you don’t want to make for yourself. I think of this as a Socratic dialogue where I get to ask you a lot of questions. You’re going to do all the work, because it’s your work, and I won’t let you dump your work on me.

Am I going to step on your fingers or tell you you’re awesome? Yes. It depends on what you need. This is jazz. I go with the flow. BTW, if you’re not awesome, I’m not going to be interested at all. If I’m hard on you, it’s because I need to be, not because I want to be. If I don’t say anything at all, it’s because I have given up—that’s the worst thing that can happen.

What’s the difference between consulting, coaching, and mentoring? I have given a three-day seminar on this, but think of it this way: When I’m consulting, you’re paying for my experience to fix a problem; you want a recommendation and you want it backed up. When I’m coaching, you’re paying me for my time to bring out the best in you. I think of both consulting and coaching as relatively shorter-term assignments that surely can be extended, and while mentoring encompasses elements of both, I think of it as a longer-term engagement, even if sporadic. When I’m mentoring, we’re both investing in a relationship that helps you do your job, that brings both of us benefits, tangible and intangible. I don’t expect anything when I consult except to get paid on time, which is why I don’t do much of it. I don’t expect you to give back when I’m coaching, I expect you to perform. When I’m mentoring, I expect to get something back from you, even if it’s just satisfaction, but I also expect to learn things from you that I can redirect elsewhere.

Can your boss be your mentor? Yes, if you are very lucky. I’ve had a few bosses who were fantastic mentors. They were 100% in my corner. They were not competing with me. I have also had awful bosses who said all the buzzwords but couldn’t have cared less if I lived or died as long as I made them rich. If you don’t have a good boss, and odds are you don’t, especially if you’re an entrepreneur, then find yourself a mentor. I promise you, the mountain climb ahead is going to hurt a lot less if you have someone who really cares about you—other than your spouse, who is truly tired of hearing all your business problems and probably can’t help you more than she or he already has.

How do I find a mentor? They will probably find you, and the question is, will you be paying attention? Almost no one fills out a mentoring application or posts a listing on Craigslist to be a mentor. Coaches and consultants do that. Mentors opt into a relationship as it naturally expands. Keep your eyes open! If someone is taking an interest in your work, go with it. Incubators and accelerators offer formal and informal ways to meet industry experts, but so do community centers and shared-interest groups. If someone invests in your company and he or she is showing an interest in more than your financial performance, spend more time with them. Do things for people all the time and they will do things for you, often when you least expect it and most need it. You don’t have to ask, “Will you be my mentor?” In fact, most of the time I find out years afterward that someone thought of me as a mentor. It happens naturally.

Will I open my Rolodex to you? OK, first, what’s a Rolodex? The answer is yes, selectively, as trust builds. If I’m financially invested in your success and I think you’ll do well with an open door, I may open it. If I’m not personally invested in you but I think there is a win-win introducing you to someone I know, I may do it, but understand, my network and my reputation are among my most important assets, so if you take advantage of my network, it’s one and done.

Do I get compensated? This can be tricky. Sometimes there is money involved in mentoring, sometimes not. First and foremost, if I admire your commitment or like what you’re brave enough to be attempting, I just do it because thank goodness someone did it for me. I have about 200 or so people from past gigs whom I still call back for free. If you worked for me in the past and reach out to me and you weren’t a turd, I’ll always call you back promptly. Sometimes in a board situation I might get paid something meaningful at liquidity. Sometimes if liquidity is a long way off and it makes sense for everyone involved given the time commitment, I might take a retainer fee. Often I get involved in a project on pure spec with the vague potential of phantom equity. A lot here depends on how much sequential time is involved, as well as how curious I am about your vision. Free or paid, cash or stock, what matters is that we both feel good about it, that the material and spiritual rewards all feel fair, and we are always transparent in our expectations.

Do you have to listen to your mentor for it to work? Yes, you have to listen. You don’t have to do what I say, but I have to know you’re listening. If you’re not listening, then why am I talking? If you just want my contacts or my money, I’m not a mentor, I’m something else. If I say something and you decide you don’t want to do it, that’s cool; just explain your thought process so I know that we are in this together. If you blow me off or don’t afford me that level of respect, I am going to bail.

Must you pay it forward and backward? You must. If you’re not planning to help someone down the road, don’t expect to keep my interest. Good people attract good people. If you join this club, expect to stay in it for life.

 

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Help, You Need Someone

“Hope you are well.”

We are all guilty of typing those words. It’s the email equivalent of “Have a nice day,” though usually as a salutation. It means that in a few sentences someone is going to ask you for a favor. In customary parlance, it’s someone you haven’t heard from in quite some time. It’s also likely someone who doesn’t much care if you are well.

Help2In the very early days of this blog, I wrote a piece of advice about networking. I thought about that a lot these past few weeks with the release of my novel. Launching a first book at mid-life is a somewhat absurd task. The odds of commercial success are so tiny, you almost can’t calculate them. When countless people in my network—from high school through college through each phase of my career—rallied to my support across the board, I was literally breathless. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for these people: job referral, job reference, resume review, preparation for a pitch, media training, media intervention, hospital visit, you name it! I am there for them in perpetuity, and they are here for me now.

Don’t take this for granted. It does not happen by accident, nor does it happen as the norm. If you haven’t yet been crushed by that discovery, you will soon enough. Don’t be dismayed. Only you can fix the problem, and it’s a problem worth fixing. But it’s not a sticky patch on a leaky roof.

Networking is still so bizarrely misunderstood, it boggles my mind. It is not a system of stored and replaced favors. It is the building of bonding relationships where people want and choose to help each other. Pay It Forward is about as constructive a strategy for longevity as I’ve experienced. Relentless excellence and indefatigable commitment aren’t bad either.

If you want to have a robust network that might help you someday when you truly need the help, build it now; you’re already behind. If you think you can pull off a big-time favor swap real-time, you’re almost certainly deluding yourself. Build your network for the future by offering to do things for others, even if it’s an inconvenience. If you do it enough, some of that work will create powerful memories of connection, even more than appreciation. That’s a well filled with sweet water when you are someday thirsty.

At the very least, if you have nothing to offer someone, show a keen interest in what they do. A few weeks ago I gave a talk about my book at Stanford. I did it because a friend who loved the book asked me. My friend showed enthusiasm, her friend (the teacher) showed enthusiasm, I responded with enthusiasm. No tangible value was created, no business leads exchanged; it was all just goodwill. Yet that wasn’t what won in the networking. One of the students reached out to me after the class with a well-composed email discussing an enigma surrounding one of the characters in the book. The student asked me how that applied to a real-world work situation. It took me a while but I responded, which opened the door for the student to ask some more heartfelt questions. I liked the heartfelt part, that’s just me, but that student has now bridged access to what was once a total stranger’s network. To me, that’s good business practice. We’ll see how he works it over the next decade. I’ll bet he handles it well.

Here’s another example: A few years ago I was in a weekend workshop, not as instructor but participant. I saw promise in the material and was there for the learning. There were people at all levels of their careers and personal development; ages spanned four decades. One individual was quite young and struggling, fresh from college outside the United States, but passionate and curious about everyone’s life path. I asked her after the workshop to email me once or twice a year to let me know how her career was going. Strangely enough, she has. I’ve received about a half-dozen updates, not too many but enough that I remember her name and long-term goals. I’ve given her some advice, but nothing of real value yet. I’m guessing at some point I will. Maybe she’s banking on it, or maybe she’s just sincere. English is not her first language, but she has not as yet typed the words “Hope you are well.”

Staying in touch is not a onetime event. It takes work to be connected, give and take, sharing ideas and information, not just asking for something. If you don’t want to do the work, don’t bother extending the outreach. You would be shocked at how many people I’ve suggested stay in touch with me after an initial meeting and never do. They forget, or they don’t care, or they don’t see value in it, or they are disheartened by the lack of immediate gratification. I am grateful to them. It helps me manage my workload—one less rising star I might someday champion.

Watching new grads bang their heads against the job market is terribly frustrating, because they haven’t had the experience to know how they could approach it better, with fortitude and resilience. Watching later career professionals suffer the same resistance is even more frustrating, because by now they should have powerful networks of their own, but if they didn’t invest along the way in others, that network today is likely too thin. Remember that LinkedIn and Facebook are tools, but networks are between people. The glue that bonds networks is history, and history comes from doing things, often and selflessly, for and with each other. When it comes to bolstering a platform of human support for your unlikely and unexpected needs, you’ll need to make that brand deposit now for future withdrawal. No surprise, you have to Think Different. It’s not a quid pro quo, you don’t get a favor for giving a favor (not a good one, anyway), but if you authentically invest in goodwill, you’ll enjoy a deep reserve of goodwill. When it’s time to dip your ladle, you want it to be an underground lake.

Networking is not what you can do for me. Networking is what I can do for you. Before you ask.