How to Train Your Mentor

The first time I spoke overseas, it was at an event in Brazil. My company was still small, and I finally had my big chance to impress important people in my industry. Needless to say, I practiced my talk for days, changed it a hundred times, and even bought a fancy suit to wear.

A few weeks after the event, a DVD of my talk arrived in the mail (yes, this story dates me a little). It was a big moment for the company, so everyone huddled into a conference room to watch. I put in the disk, and they all started laughing. It turns out I’d done the entire presentation with my new suit jacket stuffed inside the back of my pants.

The interesting part of the story is not that I looked silly (that happens)—it’s that dozens of people had seen me that day before I walked onstage. I’d hung out in the hotel lobby, milled about at the event, and shook hands with a bunch of people. Not a single person said, “Um, Shane, I don’t know how folks are wearing their suits in Seattle these days, but here in Brazil…”

That experience confirmed one of the best pieces of advice I’d ever gotten:

No one will give you advice unless you ask for it. No one will truly mentor you unless you select them as a mentor.

That day, I should have turned to someone and asked, “Do I look ok?” I didn’t, and looked silly as a result.

You might think you don’t really need a mentor or an advisor, especially if you’ve had some degree of success. This is simply not true. Even U.S. presidents ask other presidents questions, no matter what the party or personal history between them. When you’re starting out in your career, pretty much everyone benefits from a mentor. Then, after you get a little older, it’s still important to find peers who are facing the same challenges as you.

While plenty of advice exists on how to find and get the most from a mentor, my own have taught me a few secrets that will help you get the relationship right.

Don’t be afraid

The reason most people fail to get good mentors is that they’re intimidated by them. Don’t be. My first mentor was, and still is, more successful than I am. But like everyone, he likes giving advice to someone ready to listen. I don’t want to speak for him, but most of us are always secretly a little flattered to be asked for advice.

It doesn’t have to be a formal relationship

While corporate mentorship programs have their place, advice is a dish best served informally. When I want to talk to an adviser, I simply invite them to coffee. Which leads to my next secret.

It’s about coffee, not beer

You may socialize with mentors and advisors, but they shouldn’t be karaoking with you at two in the morning. A mentor is someone you meet when your head is clear, and you’re ready for advice.

They can’t have an agenda with you

A boss does not make a great mentor, nor does a partner or client. Consciously or not, those people will blend their agendas with yours, which is not what you need. One of my current advisors is a real estate developer, who lives in a completely different reality from mine—and that’s a good thing.

The success or failure of the relationship is always on you

Above all, you have to show up with questions and set the agenda for any meeting. Most people assume a mentor will simply guide you without input. It doesn’t work that way. You’re the expert on what’s bothering you.

Final point: there’s an old saying that no one can see their own backpack.

In other words, you always see what everyone else is doing wrong. But it’s very hard to see your own flaws and what you need to do to succeed. So let’s roll up our sleeves (and hopefully untuck our jackets from our pants) and start thinking about who we’re going to ask some questions.

We could all use some help, after all.

Credit to Shane Atchison

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