The importance of mentorship

I’ve been very lucky over the years to have a number of people I could call my mentor.  Both formally and informally through work and school, I’ve found people who I could rely on to guide me in the right direction.  I honestly believe that without this team of people, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.

I haven’t always recognized the value of mentorship in my life.  Growing up in an international environment, I was surrounded by successful expats who were leaders in their industry (my friends’ parents), and yet, initially failed to make the connection that these people could help me out.  I wanted to do things on my own, and often felt that asking for help was seen as a sign of weakness.

As I was applying to different schools trying to figure out where I wanted to go, my mom proposed that I sit down with one of the more business-minded people in our church, a consultant at Deloitte who we affectionately call Big Joe to this day.  Big Joe gave me the no BS talk of what it actually meant to be in consulting, and helped me to see that I could do well with a degree in engineering.  With his advice, I applied to Cornell as an engineer, got in early decision, and had pretty smooth sailing for my last semester of high school.  Halfway through my time at Cornell, I did end up switching over to economics (a decision which I do regret to some extent), but ultimately his advice still set me on the right path.

When I was in the process of applying for full-time work as a senior, I ended up getting offers from two of the larger investment banks.  I was in Mexico at the time the offers came through, and was told that I had to make a decision within a few days.  Not knowing who else to speak to, I called up the head of equities at the bank I had interned with during the previous summer.  He guided me into taking the job which was slightly riskier, but ultimately offered me more upside, and looking back it proved to be the better decision for me in the end.

At every stage of my career, there have been people I can point to as being influential in the decisions that I’ve made. With that in mind, I’ve followed this basic blueprint of finding other mentors.

Find someone who is currently where you’d like to be in 5,10, 20 years time

My dad told me once that it helps to know people who are decades older than you, because they’ve likely gone through all of the same things you’re going through now.  If you’re looking to start-up a company, seek out people in your community who have successfully started companies.  If you’re trying to transition into another industry, look for people who are in that industry and willing to give you some guidance.  As great as the internet is as a source of information, nothing beats the wisdom gained from years of experience.

Let it happen naturally

I’d like to think that good mentors fall into place much in the same way that you meet a significant other.  Sure it can be structured by the company or by the school that you’re in, but for the relationship to stick it needs to “feel right.”  Just as in dating, you can’t force the relationship, and often the best thing to do is simply to sit down for a cup of coffee and get to know each other.  Over time, you’ll get a sense of whether there’s a mutual interest, and eventually they may start coming to you directly to see how things are going.

Be realistic

As great as it would be to have Warren Buffett or Mark Zuckerberg as a mentor, realistically we have to work with what we’ve got.  When you start putting yourself out there you’ll realize that your network is much stronger than you think, and you’ll quickly find people who are willing to help you out.  Studies have shown that people not only like to give advice, but they view people who seek advice in a better light.

Develop your team

There’s no reason why you have to stop at just one mentor.  Over the years I’ve developed what I like to think of as my “team” – people I can go to for specific issues, guidance, and perspective.  I have someone I can speak to on my real estate business, and when I’m in a slump at work, I have a number of people who I know can help me to see the bigger picture.  This extends well beyond my business pursuits, and even for personal issues I have people I can trust to give me clarity.

Finding a good mentor isn’t something that happens overnight.  It’s often said that good things take time, but once you have your team in place, the journey gets that much easier.  Take their advice to heart, work hard, and you’ll be guiding someone else before you know it.

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