A man looks at his youth and says, “I wish I knew then what I know now.”
That’s what “Eric,” a pot dealer who spent four years in jail, said to me after he had become a multimillionaire.
Eric was talking about what he had learned about direct marketing. I gave him a job after he got out of jail. He was bright and hardworking and honest. (Honesty is an essential quality for a pot dealer.) And so I taught him what I knew.
It took Eric 10 years to accumulate a fortune dealing drugs. And all that money disappeared to lawyers and the government when he got busted. It took him only two years to become an expert at marketing. Two years later, he had his own multimillion-dollar business. He would have been much, much richer if he had learned what he learned from me earlier on.
This is not an essay about legal vs. illegal businesses. My purpose is to point out how valuable it is to have someone help you, like I helped Eric.
It can take a decade or more to become the successful person you want to be. But you can shorten your learning curve — even drastically curtail it — by using a mentor.
With the advice and support of an experienced person in your field, you can avoid the most common mistakes you are likely to make. You overcome the stickiest problems and find shortcuts to success.
Let me give you another example. This one comes from Business Week.
Russell and Gayla Bentley wanted to start an apparel company, specializing in upscale, “extended-size” women’s clothing. The idea was solid. And they had experience. (Gayla had been a fashion consultant for 25 years. Russell had an MBA.)
Russell wrote a detailed 100-page business plan. The plan had them investing their life savings, $250,000, along with loans, into a catalogue showcasing their original designs.
Luckily, their bank suggested they have their business plan vetted. That’s how they met Allen Shapiro, a retired executive with more than 30 years of retail experience.
Shapiro told them — at their very first meeting — that their marketing plan was way off base. “He answered questions I never thought to ask,” said Russell. “He made us see the pitfalls of starting too big too soon.”
Shapiro guided them to “a more realistic approach.” Instead of starting with a catalogue, he suggested they open a showroom and sell directly to retailers.
Shapiro’s advice worked. Before long, NeimanMarcus.com [NO LIVE LINK] and Nordstrom stores began stocking the Gayla Bentley Collection. Two and a half years later, they were selling into moderately priced lines for outlets like Dillard’s and QVC.
Talking things through with Shapiro, Russell admitted, saved them from disaster. “We probably would have gone broke pretty fast if we’d have gone forward with the big-scale plan,” he said.
I’ve had similar experiences many times in my career, both as a mentor and a protege.
In Early to Rise, I’ve often talked about my mentors.
From Leo, my first post-college boss, I learned the importance of persistence and dogged determination.
Leo once had me call Honda Motors more than 100 times to convince them to give us a new engine after the one we had died (from lack of oil). We didn’t have a single, sensible argument in our favor, but that didn’t stop Leo from pushing me. Finally, after I got all the way to the top, the Honda execs decided they had wasted too much time on us and gave in.
I didn’t feel good about getting something we didn’t deserve, but I never forgot Leo’s lesson.
From Joel, my second major mentor, I learned a great deal.
The first lesson he taught me — by firing the lady who wanted to get me fired — was that a good leader needs to surround himself with the strongest people he can find. Another lesson I learned soon thereafter had to do with the fundamental nature of business. “Until you make a sale,” Joel explained patiently, “nothing else happens.”
From Bill, a client, partner, and part-time mentor, I discovered — relatively late in my career — two important business secrets that have made me a better leader.
For one thing, I no longer feel compelled to solve every problem put at my feet. I’ve watched Bill ignore countless squabbles and come out much the better for it. Before getting involved in a dispute these days, I ask myself, “Can these people eventually come up with a satisfactory solution themselves?” If the answer is affirmative, I do nothing.
Thanks to Bill, I’m also now a big believer in product quality. Having mastered the secrets of selling through my relationship with Joel, I tended to underestimate the importance of the product. I was one of those marketers who actually wanted to sell snow to Eskimos. In working with Bill, whose focus is always on quality, I’ve seen how much better a business becomes when that’s what you stress.
Don’t Fall Into This Trap
The popular view of the entrepreneur is a maverick who strikes out all on his own. The truth is, the great majority of successful businesspeople were proteges at one time. And those who did it on their own wish they had been lucky enough to have had a mentor.
But don’t be seduced by the promise of “free” advice.
If you believe the popular books on the subject, you have no doubt come across the idea that you can get great free advice from retirees. They recommend contacting your local Chamber of Commerce or taking advantage of a national non-profit group like SCORE.
Indeed, you can locate lots of formerly successful businesspeople that way. But I’m skeptical about this approach … for two reasons.
1. Volunteers for such programs are usually long retired. And businesspeople who are out of their industry for more than five years no longer know its most important secrets.
2. Any advice you get for free is ultimately worth nothing. Not because the advice is bad, but because people don’t value anything they get for free.
If you want the right kind of mentors in your life, you have to be prepared to pay for them. You must pay for what you get in dollars. And you must pay for it in gratitude too. (More on that in a minute.)
What You Can Expect From Your Mentor
It doesn’t matter where you are along your career path. Getting yourself a good mentor will be enormously helpful.
A study commissioned by the Elliot Leadership Institute at Johnson & Wales University confirms this. Researchers surveyed senior executives and middle managers in the food service and hospitality industry about leadership competencies. Those who had been mentored reported that the experience was invaluable. They said their mentors helped them build all kinds of leadership skills, including decision-making, strategic thinking, planning, coaching, and effectively managing others.
You may have no idea what you need to learn to make the next leap forward in your career. But someone who’s been there and done it before does know. Getting the help of that person will speed up your success by light years. It will save you tons of money too.
But those advantages of mentorship are just the beginning.
Another study I read recently — a detailed and comprehensive study from the University of Georgia — found that people who had been mentored enjoyed their jobs and felt less stress than those who hadn’t.
That makes sense to me. Because the right mentor will do more than simply tell you trade secrets.
Your mentor will be your learning coach — someone you can talk to and trust. He will provide you with guidance, feedback, and support. He will help you focus on your goals and give you direction.
He will offer advice on skills he’s found valuable. He will counsel you on opportunities in your industry and different paths to success. He will share his personal experiences, but he won’t inundate you with unsolicited advice.
An article I read in Black Enterprise magazine put it this way: “Your mentor is not a savior.” He’s there to help you help yourself.
Or as leadership consultant Ron Yudd put it: “[Mentors] hold the flashlight so others can see the path.”
Getting Started with Your Mentor
Before I tell you how to find a mentor, let’s talk about how to handle your first few meetings with him.
For your first meeting, come prepared with a list of your business goals. And a list of questions too.
What do you want out of the relationship?
What do you feel you need to learn?
What do you want this person to teach you?
Prior to each succeeding conversation, outline what you want to get out of your time together. And keep track of your progress.
It’s important for you to set specific goals and monitor your own progress. That’s not his job. And if you don’t do it, he won’t be able to help you continue to achieve.
Respect the Mentor-Protege Relationship
To maintain the relationship with your mentor, you must recognize his value and reward him for it. Keep in mind that the advice he is giving you is likely to have a profound effect on your career. Although you can’t measure the financial value of any specific suggestion (i.e., “Stop spending so much time on this fulfillment project. Get to work on improving your advertising.”), you can bet that, in the long run, the effect will be significant.
Show him you appreciate what he is doing for you. Tell him, in specific terms, what you have learned from him, and thank him every time you meet.
The psychological reward of knowing he is helping you succeed is his primary reward. That said, once the relationship has been established, it’s time to offer to compensate him for his time with money. (It doesn’t have to be with cash, if you don’t have it. You can offer him a cut of the profits he’s helping you make instead.)
One of my current mentors, Sid, gets a check for several thousand dollars whenever I spend time with him. On a per-hour basis, he’s extremely well paid. But for the help he gives me in making key leadership and wealth-building decisions, the $30,000 to $40,000 a year I invest in him is a bargain.
How to Find Your Mentor(s)
There are many ways to find mentors. I’ll begin with the best but most difficult.
Look around your industry for five successful business leaders who retired within the past five years. This five-year timeframe, as I’ve said, is important. If they’ve been retired any longer, they will almost certainly be out of touch. That is especially true today. The Internet has changed marketing hugely and forever. Anyone who hasn’t done business since 2004 can’t possibly give you anything but general advice.
Write each of these five people a short letter expressing genuine admiration. Compliment them on specific achievements. Then ask for advice on your own career.
Offer an invitation to go to lunch. Or, if they’re located out of your local area, ask for a 15-minute phone call.
If you make five personal contacts, odds are that one of them will grant you an interview. If not, pick another five and repeat the process.
Spend most of your time asking questions and thanking your prospective mentor for his answers. You must show him right away that you are someone who (a) pays attention to good advice and (b) appreciates it.
If you find that you hit it off … you’ve got yourself a mentor.
The other, faster and easier, way to get a mentor is to invest in one of the many good mentorship programs available. You can find dozens of them through the Internet. ETR offers several that I — quite naturally — recommend.
Don’t Let This Moment Pass
We all make mistakes. We all waste valuable time. But we are all capable of changing our lives for the better. And that change can happen much more quickly with a mentor.
If you don’t have a mentor now, you should get one. If you have one, consider using multiple mentors. This makes enormous sense when you think about it. It gives you not only the wisdom of one person, but also the perspective you get by comparing the ideas and judgments of several experts.
Don’t wait another year. Don’t wait another day. Now is the best time to jumpstart your success. Seize the day.
Adopting a mentor or mentors requires a temporary abnegation of pride. Or perhaps something beyond that — the wisdom to understand that one’s own ideas are not always the best ideas.
I consider this to be a truly great secret of success.[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]