Admit it: You probably think that mentors are only for junior-level employees, people just starting out in the work world. They're the ones who need someone to show them the ropes, teach them important lessons, and hard-wire those critical business strategies that will shape their careers for years to come. By the time you climb the corporate ladder and move into senior and executive-level positions, you've got it all down, so you become the mentor and share your knowledge with those below you.
Except that's not entirely true. Novice employees can certainly benefit from the mentorship of more experienced workers--but the need for mentorship never truly diminishes, no matter how senior your role. Here are four reasons why.
1. The world changes incredibly fast. Things are a lot different today than they were when I first became a CEO. The forces of technology and globalization have reconfigured the direction and required skill sets of nearly every executive job on the planet. Twenty years ago, for example, data science meant little to nothing at the C level. Today, however, our ability to collect and leverage data impacts almost every action we take in. That's why you can never stop learning, or think you're at a point where you know all there is to know about your role in a company or an industry. People don't respect a leader who is arrogant, and they really don't respect a leader who is arrogant and ignorant. Mentors help you understand how changes in the business world can be best absorbed by your organization, so you can make more informed decisions.
2. Someone has already done what you're trying to do. Early in my career, I had a stint as a freelance newspaper reporter, and I found it to be great preparation for the business world. Not just because I had to hone my communication and writing skills, but because my job was to take subjects with which I was wholly unfamiliar and craft comprehensible, intelligent stories for the masses. In order to do my job well, therefore, I had to consistently find, interview, and learn from people who did know what I was writing about. I didn't try to solve all the puzzles on my own, or reinvent the wheel--and you have to maintain that same attitude in business, whether you're a CEO or not. Someone else has undoubtedly already figured out the problem you're trying to solve, so seek out the experts who have walked the path before you. With time, you'll create a network of mentors from whom you can learn on a regular basis. You'll also save yourself countless hours of effort while showing your willingness to learn new things.
3. You have to stay humble. I'll never forget how one of my first mentors taught me to negotiate. I was in my early 30s, and we were in the midst of a big discussion with another company. I was all amped up, wanting to talk to him in the hallway about how the process was going, but he shushed me and pulled me outside. He then told me point blank that I made two big mistakes: First, I saw the negotiation as a competition; and second, I was too proud of what I wanted to sell, and I needed to shut up when the deal was already sold. He taught me that a real negotiation was about achieving a win-win scenario, not about walking away with the biggest piece of pie. That sage advice has stuck with me for many years--and so has my mentor. In fact, he serves on our board now. Having him around is a great reminder of where I came from and how much I've learned over the years. He keeps my feet on the ground, and that's critical for senior executives. We need people who call us on our bull and hold us accountable. Sometimes that's a long-term professional mentor, or sometimes it's just a significant person in your life. My dad, for instance, was a high school teacher, football coach, and long-time HR exec. He knows my industry, and he knows my bad habits--so he's a great sounding board for me to this day. My wife, too, was my high school sweetheart and has known me for decades. No one keeps me more humble than she does.
4. Sometimes, you need a younger perspective. There is no handbook that says our mentors must be older than we are. In fact, younger mentors might be even more valuable to us as we age, because they represent the next generation. They're the ones defining how our customers are likely to think and behave going forward, so their perspective can be enlightening. For example, I learn continuously from my 25-year-old daughter about how younger people communicate online, discover things online, and do work online--and as a CEO of a company that produces software used daily by people in their 20s, I find this outlook uniquely helpful.
For some senior executives, the idea of having a mentor can seem antiquated. You might even get to the top of the company and start to believe you don't need anyone's help and advice anymore. Eventually, you become unreceptive to feedback--and that's where things can fall apart. Good leaders maintain a humble attitude and a healthy curiosity for learning. They don't hesitate to seek out those who have been there and done that, or those who have new insight to share. Remember: This is a fast-paced business market, and a mentor might be just what you need to stay nimble.