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Who's Your Mentor?

When you have the chutzpah to ask a more seasoned leader for help, you reap unbelievable rewards.
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Here's a dirty little secret of the business world: Most people are either too shy, embarrassed, or something else altogether to ask a more experienced businessperson for help. That's a big mistake.

People often start a preamble when they talk to me along the lines of, "I know you're busy…" But you know what? I'm not that busy when it comes to helping people out. I, like many others out there, actually take great joy when someone reaches out for help, advice, or to serve as a mentor of sorts. It all starts with having the courage to just ask.

I guess in a way I'm selfish because it really does feel good when someone asks me for insight. So why don't you take the chance? I can tell you from experience that those people who do reach out truly do benefit. 

Throughout my life, I have managed to find people who were willing to take me under their wing and teach me.  I have about six people I would consider my life-long mentors, all with different personalities and experiences.  They all have different perspectives to share.  And all are more than willing to help. 

So how did I find them?  I'm not an outgoing person, and I'm not a networker.  You'll never see me at a cocktail party giving out business cards.  I've owned my business for 26 years and I don't even have a board.  But I seem to have a knack for knowing when I've met a special person, finding a way to build a relationship of trust, and then having the courage to ask them to help me, not just with a single piece of advice, but on a regular basis as I need a sounding board.  More often than not, they have served to confirm my gut instincts about a particular issue or situation. 

Here's a case in point: Back in the 1990s, my company was awarded a contract with a very large healthcare organization.  The CEO had started that business with $150,000 and grew it into a $30 billion enterprise!  I befriended the CEO during the course of our business relationship, which only lasted for three years.  For some reason, we connected and he seemed to genuinely care and be curious about my little business that was serving his company. 

His name was Rick and he left that company in 1997.  But I informally stayed in touch and would either call or write him a couple of times a year.  In 2005, I visited him with a specific problem.  I shared that our unique employee-focused culture had resulted in a lack of accountability in our business, and that I wanted to instill greater discipline in this area.  

"Look Paul," he told me, knowing I didn't have a formal advisory board. "Accountability starts with you.  Why don't you take one of those mentors that you have, write them a check for $20,000, and ask them to hold you accountable."

I thought about it on my flight home and had an idea.  I took out my checkbook and wrote a check back to Rick for $20,000 and included a note that said, "I want you to hold me accountable."

Rick then called me up and said he'd do it. We would connect every month, on the phone or in person, for 90 minutes in which we would run down a nine-point agenda that would cover updates on everything from the company goals and financials to its biggest challenges and opportunities.  Every year, I'd write him the check for $20,000 (which he doesn’t need, but cashes nonetheless).

And guess what?  My career and life has been immeasurably impacted. So the point is that I was willing to ask for help, and got it in spades.

What’s interesting is that after I spoke to a group of MBA students at Baylor University here in Dallas about a year later, I got a call from two entrepreneurs who had been in the audience and were starting up a business in the self-serve yogurt industry. I invited them to come meet me in my office, where they filled me in on their plans and I gave what advice I could. I told them the story about Rick and the importance of mentors.  Then, a week later, I got a note from them in the mail along with a check for $2,000 and a note that said, "We want you to hold us accountable."  I was impressed by their creativity and honored to be asked!  I never cashed the check but gladly offered to help.

Similarly, about six months later, twin brothers, one of whom had heard me speak to his MBA class at Texas Christian University, asked to meet with me to talk about starting a non-profit aimed at improving educational opportunities for young people. When we met, I shared the stories of Rick and the frozen yogurt guys and, you might not believe it, I received a check for $20 a week later with a note that said, "We want you to hold us accountable!"

The point here, other than the fact that the next check I receive will likely be for $2, is that when people achieve a certain level of success, they want to give back and share their experiences. That means it's time for you to make a list of your would-be mentors and start reaching out. After all, what's it going to cost you? 

At the same time, realize that your experiences are extremely valuable to others and you can't hold that knowledge inside.  I call it the give and get—get your mentors in line and working for you, and commit to offering to do the same for others.  It will be good for your business—and good for your heart. 

 

 

 

IMAGE: Everett Collection
Last updated: Dec 12, 2011

PAUL SPIEGELMAN | Columnist | CEO of BerylHealth

Paul Spiegelman is the chief culture officer at Stericycle and founder and former CEO of BerylHealth. He also co-founded the Small Giants Community with Inc. editor-at-large Bo Burlingham. You can read more at PaulSpiegelman.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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