Life as an entrepreneur is exciting because it throws completely new challenges your way. In the last few weeks, a new challenge popped up on my radar that requires stretching way outside my comfort zone.
Handling this challenge requires velvet gloves.
Though, the interwebs have an article for every situation, they fell short in a complicated situations such as the one I was facing. I needed advice to walk through this challenge — a veritable grizzled Gandalf to guide my journey through middle earth.
The question in front of me was — where do I find this wizard? And on such a short notice.
Flashback to Harpreet — 20 years ago
Early in my career, I had very few mentors. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong.
I was keen about signing some up but with little success. Actually, replace “keen” with “obsessed” — my asian heritage which deeply values experience and “elders” had a big part to play in this obsession.
Over the years, I have stumbled and lucked into finding excellent mentors. The set of tips in this blog are what I wish I knew 20 years ago.
1 Formal mentorship programs are a crutch: ignore them
My first company in the US had a formal mentorship program and paired people up with mentors. I was enamored with the program. I was ecstatic when I signed up my role model but the mentorship never achieved lift-off.
The program was a big dud for me.
In hindsight, the reason that program failed was that a number mentors were “nudged” by their boss’ to mentor people as part of their respective growth plan. Thus, the relationship was forced to begin with.
Too often, the mentors in bigger companies are looking at these programs to forward their careers.
Good mentors are not in it for themselves — they genuinely love helping people.
So get out of the crutch of corporate mentorship programs. If you do decide to use such a program, interview the mentor thoroughly to understand their motivations and sign up with them only if your interests align.
2 A good corpus of work is a necessity: start producing work
If you haven’t put in the work, don’t bother. You need good quality and a reasonable quantity of work to get someone interested in mentoring you. If you don’t have a corpus of work and you are focused on networking — stop networking and start producing.
3 Be interested in the mentors work: read up on their work
A good overlap of work is not a necessity but helps. It’s like dating someone who has similar interests to you — someone who has put in work to read through your profile, understands your likes and dislikes is table stakes. Understanding the mentors work and common interest creates the foundations for the relationship.
Don’t fake interest!
4 Imitation: steal liberally from mentors
You don’t need a formal relationship to learn from someone else.
Pay attention to the mentor: What are they doing well? What do they read? What are they writing? What exemplary behaviors do they exhibit?
Build a checklist of items that they do well. Build a list of things that they are reading, writing and people they are following.
Once you have these lists, steal the items that make the most sense. Don’t steal or copy their work — make them their own, provide your color. Austin Kleon has written a book called “Steal like an artist” on this core idea — highly recommend reading it.
This realization that I don’t need a formal relationship with my mentor was an aha moment in my career.
I was in the organization of a charismatic leader who was loved by everyone. People stuck around with him through thick and thin. I admired him.
What made him tick?
I observed him in public setting, in meetings, in town-halls and in 1:1 conversations.
I realized that the core principles supporting his leadership were genuine concern for every member in the organization (not just his team), optimism and an unshakeable belief in himself and his team.
I started by emulating his optimism, gradually building the muscle for the other items.
His principles became the core principles for my leadership style.
5 Your next mentor is around the corner: pay attention to everyone around you
If you don’t need a formal relation then you can learn from anyone and everyone has something to teach you.
X imbibes new knowledge at lightning speed — how does he do that? Y’s team is always happy — seems like deep 1:1s are a key to her success — steal it.
Pay attention, there is a lot to learn from your colleagues, your family and friends.
6 Pay it forward: You are a Gandalf to someone
For every mentor that you need help from, there is an individual that you can help out.
Be always open — return the phone call and listen. If you cannot help this person, find someone who can help them.
So that’s it those are the tips that have really helped me.
Back to present day: did I find my Gandalf?
In the span of 48 hours, I had called 4 stalwarts in my industry. Each jumped on a call, consequently, we ended up with a framework for a solution to the problem and we are executing on the approach.
I didn’t find one Gandalf but much more — I had multiple wizards from multiple realms that I could lean on.