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Earlier, I wrote about the two most important things to success (see it here), which were the books you read and the people you meet. The quick summary is that books will expose you to new ideas, and people will expose you to new opportunities. However, I forget the greatest example of both – a great mentor.
For me personally, I was very fortunate to have a few great mentors. But why is a mentor so important, if not essential? Let’s expand on that a bit
What is a Mentor?
A mentor provides you (the mentee) with advice, guidance, insight and ideas. He makes connections where needed, provides support and helps you put out fires. Mentors can be formal or informal (appointed by the company vs. sought out), but the latter usually tends to be much stronger. No one likes to be told to mentor someone; however everyone loves to discover someone. A mentor is essentially a teacher – someone to help guide your personal and professional development. So, how do you find a mentor? How do you build the relationship? Are there other places to learn from the greats?
Mentor Manifestation: Finding a Mentor
From what I have seen, there are two ways to find a mentor. The first is the ‘push’ side; a mentor is pushed onto you. Usually this happens in large corporations – you are hired, someone is assigned to you, and you never hear about it again. Maybe you get lunch, but the bond is weak. I am not fond of this fashion of developing a mentor/mentee relationship, so we won’t spend much time on it.
The second way is to develop a ‘pull; strategy – you, as the potential mentee, need to create an attractive environment for a strong mentor. Let’s face it, most of the people who are available to be mentors usually aren’t the crème de la crème – that’s why they are available – and be ambitious, you want a great mentor! (Side note: sometimes there are fantastic mentors that just are undiscovered, if you do find this opportunity, take full advantage of it!)
So, you need to create an attractive environment to gain awareness of what will hopefully become a new mentor. The formula is pretty basic – people like to mentor future successes. Everyone likes to have helped the rising star at the firm, no matter what business you are in. So, even if you aren’t currently the rising star, or even if you don’t yet work at the firm (or anywhere for that matter!) there are ways you can portray future potential, which we will get to in detail later.
Step 1: Contact
The first step is to contact the prospective mentor; telephone is the best choice, but email works too. Additionally don’t give up too quickly, the best mentors are busy, and might miss your first email and/or call. These people could include:
- Senior staff at your company (never be worried about going too senior! Worst case scenario they say no, but you are now on their radar as an ambitious employee, best case scenario you now have the CEO as your mentor)
- Industry contacts met through LinkedIn, conferences, corporate events
- Alumni from your university or high school
- Family friends
Ask to meet for a coffee whenever they are free – put the emphasis on catering to their schedule, and remain humble at all times. Find 20 minutes that works for them, and arrange to meet somewhere convenient for them (their office, local coffee shop, etc.). Almost everyone will give you a first meeting (after that though, it’s up to you to prove your value: create the attractive environment)
Step 2: First Meeting
This is most likely the most important step in this entire process – the make or break. As the saying goes; look smart, feel smart. Dress the part of an ambitious young person, but don’t overdo it. Just above business casual is usually good, I never have personally understood people who show up to a coffee in a full suit. I personally think it puts people on the defensive – I agree to meet with someone for coffee, and they show up in a full suit – is this guy trying to sell me a set of encyclopaedias, or work me for a job? Play it safe, but don’t go overboard.
The next most important part is what you are going to talk about. NEVER go to a meeting without having done some research on the person (which is assumed, as you are trying to get a new mentor, so you would likely have done some background checking). What you need to succeed:
- A list of questions – SMART questions. For example, in finance, where everyone wants to ‘get a coffee’, the common questions are “how is the lifestyle”, “how is the group”, “what is a normal day like”. Those are terrible questions. What you should ask (using the same finance example): “I see you went to LBS for your MBA, how did you make that decision? I am looking at MBA programs in the US currently, did you find being abroad impacted your experience?”, “I see you work in the leveraged finance group, from my own research I can tell it’s very hard to get directly into that group, and I have been looking at joining FIG as a path in, what do you think about that? Can you give me some background on your group’s background?” Those are SMART questions, you are combining a list of important features: you did your research, you understand the basics, you understand the industry, know about whom you are talking to, and you sound intelligent. Remember, you are trying to get meeting #2.
- Paper and a pencil – preferably an organizer of some sort. Showing up to a meeting with a stack of paper looks somewhat amateur, but it’s better than nothing. This is another very important part. You are going to have your questions written down before hand, and then as you ask them, you should write everything down. Even if it’s something you already know, write it down. This shows the person on the other side of the table that you appreciate and value what they are saying, enough so to write it down so you can read it later. While you are writing down what the person is saying, for added measure feel free to nod your head in agreement too.
So, the meeting is coming to an end, you have asked your questions, written down their responses, and wowed them with your insight and knowledge. What now? You can try to push the meeting a bit longer (“We agreed to twenty minutes, and if you need to go now, that’s no problem, but I am really enjoying this, can you spare ten more minutes? I have a few more questions”). Notice; this should give you a good idea of how it is going thus far, if they say no and scramble away, chances are you dropped the ball somewhere (or they really do just have to go).
As you are leaving, there are two things you need to do: 1) get their card. It’s a great way to get their contact info, and gets them to subtly acknowledge you will be talking to them later, and 2) let them know you will be talking to them later. Something along the lines of “I really enjoyed today, would it be possible to meet again in a few weeks and talk more?” Also, when you get home (or later that day) email the person, thanking them for their time and insight. It’s your last chance to get a word in until the next time you meet.
Step 3: Building the Bond
So you had your first meeting – it was a success. The focus now turns to keeping the connection strong and continuing to build it. Try to keep conversation to at least once every two weeks. Meet up every month or so, and continue to keep them involved in decisions where they could help – you will find a promising mentor will actually start to take a proactive interest.
Step 4: Be a Mentor
If you really want to give back, you should try to be a mentor. Help others, because chances are there is someone facing the same issues you faced weeks, months or years ago. Providing them with insight into your experiences and solutions can help make the process easier on them.
That is what I think the process is – decide, find, establish, build. That is how you improve your network of mentors. The other important fact is that mentors will rarely seek you out. No one pulls you aside and says “I would love to take time out of my day to help you with your problems!”, or at least very rarely. You need to get out there and sell yourself – seek out mentors on your own, and you will be happy you made the investment.
Another Source of Guidance: Biographies
Sometimes the best mentors are not easily accessible. I doubt any budding financier would deny that Warren Buffet would make a great mentor, but how on earth could you ever get a chance to talk to him? I am going to assume that you don’t personally know him, or any of his close friends, so you can do what the rest of us have always done: read his biography
Biographies have to be one of the best sources of wisdom, guidance and practical insight. You can have a one way conversation with all the great leaders of our time and times gone by. You can learn from Galileo and Abraham Lincoln in one night. Never underestimate the value of biographies.
The other great source is the reading lists of successful people. Jamie Dimon tells readers in his biography (Last Man Standing) that one of his favourite books is A Brief History of the Universe, and it really is a great read. Now this is where all the habits start to work together.
For instance, if I worked at JP Morgan, I would read Jamie Dimon’s biography, see that he is interested in the previous book, and read that too. Then I would email him through our internal email (or just call him one evening – he is usually there late according to his biography – and common sense) and mention I read the two previous books, enjoyed them, and ask if he has any other recommendations. I would get those, and read them too. Then I would wait until an important event occurred (year end, birthday, anniversary, etc.) and get him one of my personal favourites, write a note in it, and hand deliver it. A few weeks later, I would ask him if we could meet to discuss the book I got him, and share ideas on how it could apply it to our business. It might sound overly aggressive, as though I would be ‘reaching beyond my post’, but that is exactly what leaders are looking for – other young, ambitious leaders. Who knows, in this hypothetical world, if I played my cards right, I might end up having Jamie Dimon as a mentor!
A bonus link: 21 CEO’s named their Favourite books; here