Every young person needs a mentor. If they don't find one in parents, coaches or teachers, they’ll emulate movie stars, athletes or rock musicians.
As a kid growing up in Michigan, my idol was Al Kaline, the Detroit Tiger’s Hall of Fame right fielder. I was such an avid Al Kaline fan that I only ate New Era-brand potato chips because its manufacturer advertised that they were “on the alkaline side.” That was enough for me.
One night after a Detroit Tigers’ game, I begged my dad to stay so I could get autographs from Tigers players. First, I was spurned by outfielder Rocky Colavito, but my hopes rose again when I spotted first-baseman and slugger Norm Cash coming out of the locker room. Like Colavito, he brushed me off. One after another, the exhausted players rushed past us adoring kids without stopping to say a word.
So when I finally spotted Al Kaline, my 13-year-old heart skipped a beat. Would number 6 ignore me, too? Was he aware I knew all of his stats, his life story, his current batting and fielding averages? A dismissal by Al Kaline would have crushed a kid whose very potato chip preference depended on alkalinity.
He must have known, because he stopped to sign. For an inconsequential young teen, this was a perfect night. And it’s one I’ve never forgotten. The only other Tiger who stopped to give me his autograph that night was Jim Bunning, also a Hall of Fame player – and later a US Senator. To this day, I have these two autographs, along with a special memory of two guys out of three dozen who took a few seconds for an excited kid (and his patient dad) who had waited outside a locker room for an hour before an 80-mile drive home.
This hardly makes them mentors, but it does capture some of the elements of good mentors: They’re accessible. They take time. They lead by example. They communicate. They are respected by others, and they show respect.
For most young people starting a career and seeking a mentor, the right equation includes a version of what I experienced on a muggy night in 1960. Young professionals need someone to pattern themselves after – a trusted adviser, a supporter, a person who can lend experience. Since finding a great mentor is one of the best ways to enhance your own future, I recommend the following:
Let it happen. Don’t ask someone to be your mentor. The best ones are already taken. They’re buried with requests. So just watch them, take mental notes, follow their examples. And if someone naturally takes a special interest in you, you’ve found gold. Cherish it as a life-changing gift.
Focus on integrity. Choose someone to pattern yourself after who has impeccable integrity. Then watch how they manage challenging situations, tough conversations and setbacks.
Pick someone who shares your values. Values are a person's “default positions” when no one is watching. They’re usually most evident in how we spend our time, our money and our mental energy. They’re hard to change, so pick someone who naturally overlaps with you.
Find a “teacher.” Look for someone who enjoys sharing knowledge and is delighted to impart skills, contacts and expertise – not someone who hoards them as a way to maintain power.
Look for a listener. Many people listen only to gather their own thoughts and to prepare their own reactions. Great mentors tend to be people who listen to understand. They ask follow-up questions and they make sure they’ve understood before they react.
Seek someone with a network. Networks take a lifetime to build. And if you’ve found a mentor who has adopted your career interests as his or her own, you’ll be introduced to a world of contacts it would otherwise take you years to develop. If you’re given the gift of a warm introduction, don’t blow it – respect the gift. (A consultant once told a mentee of mine that he was in a position to take over from me because he now shared my most-valuable investment contacts. If you’re a mentee, fire this type of consultant!)
Find a leader who cares about others. Look for mentors who take joy in the success of others and want them to get ahead. Self-absorbed people never make good mentors (beyond observable narrow skills).
Choose an optimist. They tend to get more done, have deeper relationships and be more reliable when the going gets tough. Plus, optimists tend to be cheerleaders – a key trait in finding the perfect mentor. If you find one of these, it’ll remind you of your mom – the one person in the world who believed in you during your darkest moments.
Don’t be put off by straight talk. Look for someone who’ll give you feedback. If you buy the idea that feedback is the breakfast of champions, your best mentors will be the people who pull you aside and tell you what you need to hear – even when you don’t want to hear it. (I recall a business coach who pulled me aside after what I thought had been a brilliant performance, to say simply “You talked too much.” That was it! And he was right.)
Pick respect over love. Lean toward finding someone to follow whom others admire and respect. Sometimes, these are not the most popular people, but there’s usually a reason for universal admiration and respect. Figure out what it is in your potential mentor and pattern yourself after the quality that generates such respect.
My first business mentor was Trammell Crow, who taught me most of the lessons upon which I’ve relied during my 42 years in business. But you don’t need a formal mentor to serve as your river guide, confidant or advisor. If you don’t find a flesh-and-blood mentor, grab one from history.
From history, I’ve chosen Winston Churchill as my mentor, admiring how fearless he was in a fearsome time, and how he wasn’t shaken when rejected by colleagues. In the end, others turned to him when the chips were down. I’ve aspired to a tiny reflection of this for my own legacy. Needing to overcome reversals in my life, I’ve also chosen Abraham Lincoln as a mentor.
If you’re lucky enough to find one, whether in real time or in history, pay it forward by becoming one for others.