As an entrepreneur, one of your most valuable assets is a good mentor. Entrepreneurism is risky by nature, and those that choose it need a solid support system. Most critical in this support system is a mentor. Like Yoda to Luke Skywalker or Mr. Miyagi to Daniel-san, the importance of a wise hand to help a hero through the trials and tribulations of the entrepreneur’s journey is well-known and well-documented. However, finding a mentor is easy in theory but complex in practice. 

Entrepreneurs often have a do-it-yourself mentality in that they’d prefer to take their own road before consulting someone else. But the best kind of mentor provides guidance, wisdom, and even connections, to help entrepreneurs make the right moves as they face daily challenges, major obstacles and big decision points.

I’ve been extremely fortunate in my career to have John Sculley as a mentor. John’s had a legendary career--as former CEO of both Apple and Pepsi, but he’s also had a tremendous impact on my career. I have been lucky to observe and learn from him, both professionally and personally. A person doesn’t have to be the former CEO of one of the most prominent companies in the world to be a great mentor (but it doesn’t hurt). An objective mindset, emotional connection and fact-based guidance can come from anyone. More than anything, a good mentor helps entrepreneurs think differently than they would on their own. Here’s five things I’ve learned from John that I apply every day. 

1. Know Your Audience

Understanding your audience is the foundation for any effective business leader. It helps create a connection by demonstrating empathy. Tailoring your message and style to connect with an audience is necessary in dealing with employees and with clients. Understanding what motivates, attracts and repels individuals, helps make an entrepreneur influence their own decisions and behavior. John has taught me that adapting a style to suit different environment is a sign of strength, not weakness. 

2. Listening is Key

Most entrepreneurs like to talk. And talk. They are also very single minded and in conversations tend to have an answer ready without truly listening to the other person. John taught me the value of managing with open ears. This can be evident in matters big and small. For example, I recently passed one of my employees in the hall and asked how he was doing that day. He replied, “Not much.” The polite reaction, of course, is to ignore his oversight and move along, but I persisted. “No, HOW are you doing?” As we talked, I learned that he had been going through some personal issues that were affecting his performance in the workplace. I walked away from the conversation knowing that he benefitted from the conversation. Listening fosters relationships and when your employees feel like they have a relationship with their CEO, the team becomes stronger. 

3. Pivot for Progress

Besides open ears, entrepreneurs running a business that’s growing quickly need to keep an open mind. Like any great mentor, John brings an outsider’s perspective on the marketplace and a sharp mind to help work through business problems. Sometimes that perspective helps me think about changing course. Every pivot I’ve made in the past 18 years has involved John as a catalyst or a sounding board. Understanding the importance of the pivot has changed my mindset as a business person. Entrepreneurs are laser focused on a big idea. The influence of a mentor to be open to a better idea is critical for developing a business that’s built to last.

4. Be Nice

People ask me all the time, “Is John really that nice?” and he is. He has a genuine kindness about him that I admire and try to emulate. In my experience, I have found that it is very unusual for people to achieve the level of success that John has and remain as kind as he is, but he does it - not just for clients, but for everyone he touches. I’ve learned that as a leader, a smile or a kind word goes a long way. Demonstrating kindness in day-to-day actions - as well as through random acts - humanizes an entrepreneur and helps establish connections with employees, clients and key vendors. However, being nice is not the same as being a pushover. John’s spine is made of steel. That balance of kind exterior and strong interior is a model that I try to live up to in my business.  

5. People First

Building a company involves several fundamentals --strong culture, a scalable business model and, most importantly, great people. Often an entrepreneur thinks they can do everything on their own. After all, most of us started companies as a solo venture. John taught me to hire the best possible people by offering employees more than they can get elsewhere. Bringing in the best talent comes at a cost, but human capital has proven to be the most valuable thing in which a business can invest.

Important lessons in the art of entrepreneurism are different for everyone. Methods that work for one entrepreneur may not work for another. But one universal truth is the importance of a mentor. I have been fortunate to have John Sculley as my friend and mentor for 18 years. Find yours. 

Published on: May 7, 2015