The best leadership advice I’ve ever received
NB: Before we begin: this is the latest article in a series on modern leadership mastery. The series overview and links to previous articles can be found here.
The best leadership advice (and one of the best pieces of life advice) that I’ve ever received is this: find a great mentor and learn from them.
A short list of ways that mentors have changed my life:
- Prevented me from dropping out of college two weeks before graduation (I don’t know what that hell I was thinking)
- Taught me how to connect with an audience from the stage
- Prevented me from closing Ignited Leadership when it was failing during the first year
- Taught me how to build a business from the ground up
- Prevented me from closing Ignited Leadership when it was succeeding in the second year
- Introduced me to truly influential people I would otherwise have no access to
- Prevented me from making potentially destructive partnerships with shady but seductive individuals
We glance at the super-successful and believe that they got there on their own. That’s a fiction. Truly self-made men and women don’t exist. People only succeed with a little help from their friends, and more often than not, from thoughtful mentors who understand them and can guide them through the choppy waters of life. [NB: if you have trouble asking for help – and I’ve been there – watch this TED talk.]
Finding a mentor is an art unto itself. If you are an emerging leader, a good mentor is a non-negotiable. She will help cut through the inevitable isolation of leadership, speed up your success, and prevent the waves from breaking the bow.
How to find a mentor
1) Ask yourself, “who do I want to be in 20 years?” When I sought out my current mentor, I wanted to be a professional speaker with a healthy business who gave back to his community. You should take the time to connect with your wildest dreams for yourself first and really get a decent idea of what you want out of life before you reach out to a potential mentor.
2) Now find that person, and reach out. Once you have clear(ish) picture of who you want to be, look online to find someone who is living the life that you want for yourself, ideally one who you can meet in person. Shoot her an email. Tell her that you’re just getting started, that you admire her, and wanted to know if there was any way you could buy her breakfast/lunch/dinner/coffee/tea/a puppy and pick her brain about how she built her career for 15 minutes.
In your email be polite, be succinct, and let them know specifically what it is about them that you admire. Make it easy to say yes by offering to come to them and accepting the first meeting time they offer you.
3) Be worthy of investing in. The people who would be the most amazing mentors, are also the people who are most hounded by others asking them to give their time away for free. You do not want to come off as one of the masses trying to get something for nothing; instead, you want to make a strong first impression. Here’s how:
- Do your research. Read as much about the person you want to be your mentor as possible.
- Be insanely professional (show up early, offer to pay for everything, send a thank you card, etc).
- Do not bother asking questions that they’ve answered publically in interviews or articles. Instead, come up with a list of thoughtful, open ended questions unique to you.
- Position yourself as someone who is humble and excited to learn. The best way to do this is by coming prepared with questions to ask and spending the majority of your time (like 80%) listening.
4) Ensure that you have good chemistry. To some degree, finding a mentor is like dating. You want someone you admire, who you can learn from, who you have a natural rapport with, and who you’re comfortable being very vulnerable around. The first person you reach out to may not be the ideal person. When I was starting out as a speaker, I reached out to many professional speakers. Most, honestly, I didn’t like or respect.
If that happens to you, that’s ok. Even normal. Just repeat the process until you find someone you have good chemistry with.
5) Do not ask them to be your mentor. This rarely works. Most people who are desirable mentors are too busy to make a firm commitment about investing an hour of their time in you each month. Instead, ask them, “Hey, if I try out what you suggest, is it cool if I email you in a month or two to let you know how it goes?” They’ll say yes.
6) Follow their instructions, even if they seem crazy. A lot of their advice may seem counterintuitive. My mentor – an extremely brilliant man – routinely tells me things that make him sound like a crazy Yoda:
- “To move fast, you have to move slow”
- “To be a good speaker, you have to spend more time writing”
- “To get everything you want, you have to forget about all the things you want”
- “The universe is telling you to relax”
Only after living his advice do I actually find the wisdom in his guidance. If I just sat around thinking about what he said, I would have never truly grasped it.
7) Figure out ways to help them too. How you do this varies from mentor to mentor, but ensure that they are benefitting from the relationship as well. Personally, I recommend spending a bit of time brainstorming once or twice a year for different ways you can help/charm/delight them, and then do it.
8) After a month or two of following their advice, shoot them another email asking for a meeting. Once you’ve found someone you like, keep repeating steps 2-8. Over time you’ll build a strong rapport together and you’ll have recruited an invaluable member of your team who, respects you and enjoys investing in your success.
When I look at the super-successful people and high performers that I’ve had the privilege of working with, I notice that they all have mentors who help them along the way.
I see this in public service, entrepreneurship, business, philanthropy and non-profit. It appears that the biggest x-factor in success that any individual can control is not how hard or smart they work, not where they live or who they know, but instead, whether or not they’ve taken the time to cultivate a great mentor. I know that for me, that’s been the biggest x-factor in the success (and often, happiness) that I’ve achieved as a speaker, consultant, and man.