The Fastest Strategy for Learning and Succeeding

Written by Bud Bilanich

The term "mentor" comes from The Odyssey.  Odysseus entrusted the care of his son, Telemachus, mentoringto Mentor when he set out to fight the Trojan War. 

The best mentors will help you learn and grow by sharing their knowledge and wisdom with you.  In this way, you can benefit from their experience without having to suffer the consequences of gaining that experience firsthand.

Mentors are positive people by definition.  It takes a positive person to give of himself or herself to help another learn, grow and succeed.

I have been fortunate to have had several mentors in my life and career.  All of them shared several characteristics.  They all:

  • Were willing to share their wisdom, knowledge, skills and expertise.
  • Had a positive outlook on life. 
  • They helped me through tough times and showed me how to find the opportunity in the difficulties I was facing.
  • Were genuinely concerned about me and my success
  • In addition to be knowledgeable, they were empathic. Really knew what they were doing.  I respected them for their knowledge and skills.
  • Kept growing themselves.  All of my mentors were curious and inquisitive.  Sometimes the roles were reversed.  They asked what I was reading, and then read the books themselves so they could learn and we could discuss the ideas.
  • Gave me direct, constructive feedback
  • They held me to high standards.  They congratulated me when I met their expectations.  They corrected me when I failed to do so but in a manner where I learned what not to do the next time.
  • Were respected by their colleagues.  People who are highly regarded in their field or company make the best mentors. 
  • Sought out and valued the opinions of others.  My best mentor always told me to listen most carefully to the people with whom I disagreed in that way I might learn something.  And, he was right. As the old saying goes, a mentor is someone whose hindsight can become your foresight.

Do you want to find a mentor?  Just look around you.  Who are the people you admire and want to emulate?  Watch what they do, and do the same.  I've had several mentors who never even realized they were mentoring me.

I learned how to build a network of solid contacts by watching Maggie Watson.  I learned the rules of business etiquette and dressing for success by watching Bill Rankin.  I learned how to become a first rate public speaker by watching Steve Roesler.  I learned how to become a trusted advisor by watching Don Nelson.  I learned how to carry myself with dignity in even the most difficult situations by watching JF and Carol Kiernan.  I learned how to become a better conversationalist by watching Cathy, my wife.

The reverse is also true.  I've learned plenty about what not to do to build self esteem, give performance feedback and treat people with respect and dignity from observing a few of my managers over the years.

I've found that if you want to have an acknowledged mentoring relationship, all you have to do is ask.  Go to the people you admire and tell them that you admire their judgment and would like to learn from and get career advice from them.  Ask if you can impose on their time to get answers to questions you have.  I have never had anyone turn me down when I've asked this way. 
How to Be a Good Mentor

Just as it's important to find someone you respect to mentor you, it also important to mentor others.  You don't have to be in a formal leadership position or have years and years of experience to mentor someone else.  It's never too early to become a mentor and to share your career advice with others.  We all have something to give, and the sooner you begin giving the better.  If you're in college, you can mentor high school students.  If you're a recent graduate, you can mentor others still in school.

I take great joy in mentoring other people.  I love it when I can use my experience to share my career advice and help accelerate the growth of someone else.  It takes the sting out of some of the negative consequences I've experienced because of my poor judgment.  I think to myself, "At least he or she won't have to go through that."

In his great book,  Love is the Killer App, Tim Sanders tells the story of how he turned one of the people who worked for him from a "mad dog" into a "lovecat."  The advice is simple: Offer your wisdom freely and always be human.

Tim is right on; offering your career advice and wisdom will turn you into a lovecat.  Mentoring is a great way to serve others.  The more you serve others, the more confidence and success will come your way.

You'll grow by mentoring.  As you reflect on your life experiences and distill them into some career advice nuggets that you can share with others your knowledge will become wisdom.  In addition to being better able to help others learn and grow, you will be better able to take advantage of what you know.  You never learn something so completely as when you teach it to another person.

Any mentoring relationship needs to focus on the person being mentored.  While mentoring someone will most often be a satisfying experience for you, remember that it is not about you, it's about the other person.  Accept him or her for who he or she is.  Help him or her proceed at his or her own pace.  The best mentoring relationships are guided by the person being mentored.

Mentoring should be a positive experience for both of you.  That means that you need to avoid treating a person you are mentoring as incompetent or incapable.  Rather, think of him or her as someone lacking in experience and who needs guidance.  Don't criticize.  Give the kind of career advice that helps the other person think through the consequences of his or her behavior, and identify more positive ways of handling difficult or troubling situations.

Hold the person you are mentoring responsible for his or her success.  Give him or her small assignments.  Don't let him or her off the hook if he or she fails to complete them.  Be willing to give of yourself and your time, but make sure the other person is doing so too.

Realize that the relationship will end. If you've done a good job, the person you are mentoring will need to move on at some point.  It's all part of the cycle.  It can be hard to let go, but feel good about seeing someone move on to bigger and better things and another mentor.

I've created an acronym to define what it takes to become a good mentor.  A good mentor?

M Motivates you to accomplish more than you think you can.

E Expects the best of you.

N Never gives up on you or lets you give up on yourself.

T Tells you the truth, even when it hurts.

O Occasionally kicks your butt.

R Really cares about you and your success.

Look for people with these qualities when you are searching for a mentor.  Embody them yourself when you are mentoring others.

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