“We’d all have 20/20 vision if we could use the benefit of hindsight”
-Sergeant Max Roswell, Rhodesian Army, Corps of Engineers-
I woke up on this morning with a revelation about my business. It was so simple, I couldn’t believe it had taken me 2 years to figure it out. The interesting thing was that despite huge amounts of time thinking about this challenge, the actual answer came to me in a split second. I was reflecting on a discussion with a successful business person while at gym the day before. He didn’t give me the answer but he pointed me in the right direction.
I made the mistake of not discussing my challenge with anyone else. I felt the problem was something I should have known the answer to, so I didn’t really feel comfortable talking about it to others. Wow, did I learn the value of having a mentor. I have probably lost 18 months of productivity simply because I wouldn’t ask for help.
How often have you said to yourself, “I wish I knew then what I know now?” I have a number of people that I use as mentors, but I have said it a few more times than I would have liked to.
It takes a long time to become successful. Along the way there are many pitfalls. Each time we encounter one we learn something, regardless of the outcome. This means that if you make a point of getting advice from someone experienced in your area of interest, you can probably avoid most of the common mistakes and often you can find short cuts to success by following the advice you get from the voices of experience.
No matter who you are and where you are in your career, finding yourself good mentors can be invaluable. I like to have different mentors for different aspects of my life, both business and personal.
There’s lots of research on the value of mentoring relationships. It almost always shows that the person being mentored finds a lot of value in it.
I believe that a lot of my success today is due to some important mentors in my past.
In my first real job I was a medical technologist working in the local medical school. Here I learned the value of delegating tasks and letting people run with them and not interfering. Although I was only 18, my boss kept testing me by giving me ever bigger challenges, letting me learn by my mistakes and helping me learn from them. From my very first managerial position, I have always tried to manage people this way. Managing people like this helps the eagles fly, but the mediocre players flounder.
In another position, I learned that simple tasks are not simple unless you understand the secrets. I was struggling as a novice salesman. My boss was an expert salesman and sold almost effortlessly by asking a series of questions. To the uninitiated, this simply looked like having a nice chat and being inquisitive.
It was only once he started explaining the strategy to me that I discovered he had an overall game plan. He used a sophisticated technique comprised of four different types of questions that yielded very different results depending on how and when they were used in the conversation. He also showed me how to use questions to build trust, to understand needs, to handle objections and even to close the sale.
To this day I still sell this way. I have literally made hundreds of thousands of dollars with this one technique. I got it free, but in retrospect I would have paid many thousands of dollars to learn it. In fact had I not learned to sell this way, I think I might have had a very different career.
I have never again assumed that what looks simple is really simple.
Most people underestimate the complexity of even simple subjects, assuming that by casually observing, they can see all there is to know. Take direct mail. I often hear people say, “Direct mail doesn’t work in my business”. With a little probing, it usually becomes apparent that even the most basic rules of direct mail were ignored.
The person thought ; “I can write a letter, what can be so difficult about a direct mail piece?” People with this attitude fail to recognize that experts spend a lifetime studying this one subject; learning how to get letters opened, learning how to get letters read and how to get people to take action on their letters. (See article below, “6 Simple Rules for Creating Direct Mail That Gets Your Phone to Ring”.)
Many of us become satisfied with a certain level of performance, assuming that it is enough. We become satisfied and complacent with our level of performance and stop looking for answers. This often cheats us, we miss the opportunities for growth, not realizing that some simple changes can turn a project from a failure or marginal success to a runaway success with no extra cost and often no extra effort.
You may not know what you need to learn to make the next leap in performance and skill. But the great thing is, there is no subject you need to learn that you can’t find out about from someone else who has been there and done it successfully before. One of your goals should be to find people who can help you move forward. It will accelerate your results and make a big difference in your performance.
How do you find mentors?
First off, you should write down the goals you want to achieve. Then decide where you need help. Once you have that list, look around in your industry for people who are successful. Ideally try to find people who have retired recently. They are often at loose ends; bored with doing nothing and willing to help. Also, if their retirement is recent, they are still current, which is critical. Another source is subject matter experts in the field you need to learn about.
The easiest way to reach these people is to write them a short letter, expressing admiration for their careers and achievements. This must be sincere as any insincerity will be immediately recognizable.
Ask for the opportunity to meet with them over lunch and outline the area or issue on which you are looking for advice. This first meeting should be exploratory. You need to know if you get along, and understand what this person can teach you. You also need to find out your potential mentor’s level of interest in this kind of role. You also need to understand what he or she wants in return and what each of you expects from the relationship. I would not discuss compensation until you are sure you want to work together.
Some questions you should have in the back of your mind include:
- Is this someone you can trust?
- Is this someone you can confide it?
- Is this someone who can give you relevant advice, feedback and support?
- Is this someone with sufficient technical knowledge to be able to help you learn what you need to learn?
Be prepared to pay top dollar for this kind of help, after all these people can help you accelerate your progress dramatically and you can learn from every mistake they have made. Imagine what it would have been worth to me to have solved my problem in a matter of days or weeks instead of years! But don’t pay more than you are comfortable with. Follow your instincts.
Before each meeting decide what you want from the discussion and outline this before you begin. This also will give you a measure of success. When working with your mentor, it is important to keep track of your progress so that both of you can see the benefits of working together. It will also be important to let your mentor know what you are learning as you progress through the relationship.
I believe in multiple mentors. I like to choose people with different skill-sets and perspectives. This not only gives you depth in the chosen area, but also the opportunity to compare different perspectives where appropriate.
Sometimes the people you would like to have as mentors are already in the business of giving advice. If this is the case respect that that is how they earn their living. Don’t expect them to do something for you outside of what they normally do. If you need their skills and can afford to pay them, often this is a great way to accelerate your success.