Every entrepreneur would love to have a mentor—someone who has similar values and goals but is older, wiser and invested in your success.
The problem is, the best mentor candidates are often so busy with their own lives, they simply don’t have time to spend cultivating others. As Harvard Business School professor Thomas DeLong writes, thanks to the pressures of modern business life, if it doesn’t contribute to a company's bottom line ROI, it usually doesn’t get done, making mentorship an endangered species.
But even if you haven’t yet found a traditional mentor, that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from the wisdom of others. Instead, we need a new definition of mentorship. Rather than pining after “the one” who will answer all your questions and serve as the ultimate role model, it’s time to branch out and develop a team of mentors—a group of colleagues who may not be “perfect” but who have traits you admire and want to learn from. Perhaps one person is great at networking, another excels at social media and a third is a pro at delegation—those are all valuable skills you’d benefit from learning.
By making a list of people you admire, at all levels in your organization and in all walks of life, you can form a "mentor board of directors" and start to assemble your own curriculum. Here are four places you can look to find your nontraditional mentor group:
I recently conducted a workshop at a top law firm. One successful partner recalled a conversation she'd had years before with her secretary, just after she started at the firm. She was pregnant when she joined, and under the firm’s policies, she was ineligible for health-care coverage for the birth, which would have posed a massive financial burden. The attorney was going to accept the policy outright, but her secretary told her, “If you can’t argue for yourself when you really need to, you’re not going to make much of a lawyer.” The attorney took her advice, persuaded her employer to expand her coverage, and realized that her secretary was a powerful mentor: someone who offered honest advice when it really counted.
In my book, Reinventing You, I profile a TV journalist named Hank Phillippi Ryan, who began a second career as a successful mystery writer when a staffer who'd started out as her intern wrote a romance novel and asked Hank to read it. In doing so, she realized that if her young, 20-something colleague could write a novel, she could, too. As Hank told me, the experience reminded her of the Zen saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
Professionals Outside Your Field
We often assume we can only learn from professionals who are in our own fields. "What could she possibly know about what it’s like to be an accountant/social media consultant/bakery owner/mobile app developer?" we think. But if we open our minds, we can often learn powerful lessons from people we respect who work in other realms. One professional told me about how much she’d learned from her yoga teacher and her midwife; she was so used to working at a frenetic job, their gentle reminders to step back and gain perspective were incredibly meaningful and helpful for her.
Just because you don’t know someone personally, that doesn’t mean they can’t be your mentor. Reading biographies or even watching documentary films can be an inspiring way to connect with the people whose experience and perspective you admire. Maybe you want to tap into the courage and conviction of Martin Luther King, or the empowering feminist message of Sheryl Sandberg, or the philanthropic largesse of Bill Gates. Reading about their lives can help give you the tools to channel their experiences and learn from their example.
For most entrepreneurs, it’s unlikely that we’ll be noticed and tapped on the shoulder by a successful elder statesman hoping to mentor us. Instead, we need to take control of the process and be proactive by identifying who we want to learn from and then deliberately seeking out that knowledge. Whether it’s inviting your yoga teacher out for lunchtime strategy sessions every few months, really listening to and learning from your interns and employees, or immersing yourself in the lives of great leaders, there are a cornucopia of ways you can benefit from mentorship.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book, Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press), subscribe to her e-newsletter and follow her on Twitter.
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