The Value of a Mentor

You can't do it alone. Find someone who's been there and listen and learn

Me and my mentor and friend, Dr. Reed Sheard

A few years ago I was sitting in my office shaking.  In tears.  With my door closed.  I had just fired someone for the first time.  He was a good man.  Nice guy.  But the direction of where organization needed to go necessitated some change.  Hard decisions needed to be made.  And I had no idea how to navigate waters like this.  I didn’t sleep two days before and was restless the week before.  The way I made it through was because I had mentors who coached me.  One of the more influential mentors helped me with this hard meeting.  He helped me craft the termination letter.  Helped me organize and control the communication flow.  Helped me clarify what I would say.  He called me before and prayed with me.  He told me to call him afterward which I did.  Leadership is hard.  Doing the right things is harder sometimes.  This was a hard day.  But it was made possible because I had someone walking with me through it.  A mentor. His name is Reed Sheard. He’s the guy I’m pictured with above.

A few years ago, Michael Hyatt posted an article on how to get faster quicker and better.  One of the principles he outlined was to hire experts.  He had tried to get in shape, but had struggled.  Hiring a personal trainer helped get him over the hump to accomplish his goals.  He tied this principle to mentoring.  If you want to become great, read great people.  Talk to great people.  And, if you’re lucky, get mentored by great people.

When I read that post from Michael a few years back, I was starting an executive leadership role and knew I was in over my head.  Reflecting back on that season as a young executive, there was lots of success.  A few failures.  But overall, the least successful thing we did in four years was a 200% growth.  Not bad.  But I know I wouldn’t have been able to see that kind of success and navigate through failure without mentors.  How did I find them?  How did it happen?  I don’t know if this is a roadmap, but this is what I did:

I Asked

Great mentors aren’t sitting around on Craigslist.  If someone is advertising to be a mentor, chances are that’s probably someone who may not be that valuable.  The best mentors are the ones who aren’t on the market.  The way to get space from them is to simply ask.   I remember reading the book “The Shaping of an Effective Leader” by Dr. Gayle Beebe.  Dr. Beebe is the president of Westmont College.  He’s also the man responsible for hiring me back when he was president of Spring Arbor University.  He wrote about the importance of mentoring in his book.  One example was his desire for time with one of his heroes, Peter Drucker.  Drucker saw something in him and gave Dr. Beebe two days a year of his time.  To Beebe, they were gold.  His purpose in telling the story is that sometimes you simple need to ask. So, I decided to ask Dr. Beebe if he would invest some time in me.  I sent him an email to request a meeting and he said yes.  I met him for a lunch a few times over the years. In that time, he invited me to call on him whenever I needed.  His accessibility and openness spoke volumes to me.  It never would have happened if I hadn’t asked.  When looking seeking mentors, don’t be afraid to ask.

I Paid For It

Fortunately for me, I was empowered by amazing leaders above me to give permission for some professional development.  I used those dollars wisely and paid two different ways:

  1. One was to hire a professional coach to walk me through systematically my team, my leadership style, and guide myself and my team on how we could improve.  We met weekly through Skype and worked through homework assignments, journaling and goal setting.
  2. The second was to spend a day once or twice a year with someone amazing.  I did that annually.  After I setup the structure with him, he said he’d meet with me for free.  No need to pay.  In lieu of this, I would come to his city and pay for a few nice meals as we worked together.  We both got fed well.  Me more in my spirit.

Even after leaving this role,  I still pay for development.  I read books and pay for a few services/memberships. If you can, invest in development financially.

I Was Persistent

Good people don’t sit around waiting for someone to call them and get their “sage wisdom”.  I would reach out to people that mattered.  Sometimes it would be just a question I needed answered.  The ones that responded, I kept developing the relationships.  The ones that didn’t, I didn’t.  The point is that I didn’t give up in pursuing great people to help me become great.

I Diversified

Great mentors don’t have lots of time.  They are also usually REALLY good at specific things.  So as I built out my mentoring group, I connected with different people for different needs.  For organizational & administration challenges, I contacted Reed Sheard.  For staff development issues I contacted Kelly Soifer.  For spiritual and heart matters, I connected with Nathan Foster.  For internal issues related to the organization, I contacted my supervisors, the Board of Bishops.  That way I didn’t tax these individuals time with many requests.

I Maximized What Was Offered

What would I do to get a day of Dr. Beebe’s time?  Or of Michael Hyatt?  Or one of my bishops?  The reality is that the best leaders don’t have a day.  Or, if I were to pay for their time and coaching, it would be expensive.  I had to learn quickly to be grateful for the time I would have and use it the best I could.  This is the “loaves and fishes” lesson.

I Was Grateful

When people give you time, it’s a sacrifice.  I made sure to affirm the people who coached me and let  them know their investment of time was making a difference.  I tried to do more than an email.  Sometimes it was an actual paper card.  One time it was giving one mentor who is was a coffee lover some coffee I brought back from Africa.  One person who invested time in me I learned loved cigars. I went to a cigar shop and bought a few with a thank you card for him. Practice gratitude.  It’s a simple principle, but I think it’s important.

There is absolutely no way I’d be half the person I am today without people speaking into my life. If you’re seeking mentoring and coaching in your life, don’t be afraid to dream big. Are there services you use to help you become better?

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