Wise leaders give credit to hard work and luck for their successes. But I give most credit for any success I have had to the mentors that helped me over the years. Every time I’m building a business, working on a product, or making an important decision, I consult my list of favorite mentors and get introductions to new experts. After all, many of the questions and decisions I wrestle with today have been encountered in some form by other people.
For example, just in the past few weeks I’ve gotten advice from legendary venture capitalist, Bill Gurley. Tim Ferriss introduced me to several helpful people from his network, including Jim Collins. One of my fellow college alums introduced me to Disney’s Bob Iger the other day and he shared tips on managing creative businesses. I’ve been doing research on social networks and was able to receive guidance from Sarah Frier. And Reid Hoffman is like my best friend—there’s not a week that goes by without him sharing a useful story with me.
These are some of the top minds in business today, but my mentors go back a long way. Abraham Lincoln is helping me understand leadership amid a divided nation. I was introduced to Pericles the other day and he shared deep insights on organizational strategy. Robert Greene introduced me to CoCo Chanel and her story of tapping into the cultural zeitgeist.
By now you probably get my point I’m leading you towards: Mentors come in many forms…
Traditional “Mentorship” is Overrated
One of the most-repeated suggestions for people who are starting out in business is that they need to find mentors. Mentors promise the chance to help advise and direct you, make introductions to other useful people, and give you a leg up in your career. Of course this leads to tension: How do I find a mentor? Will you be my mentor? Will I get promoted without a mentor? Can our company set up a mentor program?
This common advice seeds doubt and concern, but it also sets up a power play of unequal relations. Mentorship suggests that there is a senior person on high who is full of wisdom and understanding, giving advice to a junior person who is an empty vessel waiting to be filled. This teacher-student setup gets in the way of what should simply be people sharing thoughts with each other as equals.
Like a lot of people, I have this little voice in my head that sometimes still tells me that “You need more mentors.” I don’t have anyone in my life that I look at as a mentor—and after +25 years in business and a good amount of success, I can’t credit any “mentor” for taking me under his or her wing. I do remember an early job at a large company where I was formally assigned a mentor who was a few levels higher in the org chart. He invited me up to his office one time, gave me a few words of forgettable advice, and the next time we passed in the hall he couldn’t remember my name.
On the other hand, I have had amazing managers early in my career that gave me responsibility, support and advice in my work—and together we had amazing business success. A couple of them, Brian McNamara and Benno Dorer, are now CEOs at GSK and Clorox, respectively. They positively impacted me at critical times and made me a better leader, a pattern I know they have repeated again and again for many others. But when we catch up they are friends, not “mentors.”
Helpfulness and Friendship are the Keys
The better advice we should give people starting out their careers is that business success comes from mutual help, and you don’t need a mentor moniker to ask for or give help. Instead of seeking a mentor, they should look to build relationships with people who are willing to share their time and advice—and pay-it-forward with others in return.
Like many of you, I enjoy sharing suggestions and advice with people of any age or title who are in need, curious and appreciative. There’s a real pleasure in aiding others, especially when you might warn someone of a mistake that you suffered in the past. But there’s even more value in the conversation, as it offers us the chance to learn about someone new and something interesting. And in these conversations I often ask for their advice on something I happen to be working on at the time.
There are thousands of people that I have spoken with just once about a topic and have never seen or heard from again. That’s fine, and really a form of ideal society—one where strangers can meet, share helpful knowledge, and move forward with both sides better off.
Of course the ideal goal is to gradually build friendships that can last your entire life. Friends give to each other proactively and naturally. They make time for you because they genuinely care about you. Chatting is not a chore to carve our calendar space for, it’s a pleasure that you’re happy to do on evenings or weekends. They will give you the tough feedback and warn you when you’re in danger—even if it risks the friendship itself to do so. Like any form of real love, there is no power play in friendship or careful accounting of favor debits and credits.
Sharing Content Scales your Impact
Going back to my opening, I believe the highest form of helpfulness is when people take the time to put their knowledge and experience into a form that many, many others can access and learn from. The rise of the Internet and novel ways to find and access others’ experiences—whether from this moment or two thousand years ago—have propelled our potential to amazing heights.
Today, some of the best advice comes from sharing the books, podcasts and blogs of people that have helped you. For example, since I’ve sold two companies people tend to find me to ask for advice as they go through that process themselves. I’m happy to speak with them, or share this long interview about the experience. But the most impactful thing I can do is share this Pinterest board where I saved several articles written by other people with amazingly helpful tips. Those articles gave me the knowledge and confidence to push for millions of dollars in incremental return for our shareholders and employees.
I can’t really put a clear price on their advice, which they offered freely, but I can repay the broader world in a way by sharing my own knowledge more widely. This is why I wrote a book on the future of marketing a few years ago—which in part described how sharing meaningful content is the next evolution of marketing—and why I started writing again here.
As we head into a new year and maybe a new era, my ask for you, dear reader, would be to think about how you might share your own wisdom in a more scalable way. It might be sharing useful articles on Twitter, writing a blog like this one, or saying yes the next time you’re invited to speak on a stage or podcast. Don’t over-think it, just offer the same kind of advice you’re already giving in today’s one-on-one format. And remember that while you might not be the next Tim Ferriss right away, at least your friends will be happy to follow and learn from you.