A version of this article previously appeared on Inc.
Bob Wood has been a mentor to dozens of professionals during his long career in public service. Despite retiring several years ago, he continues to provide guidance to young (and not so young) professionals.
As noted in You’re Never Too Old (Or Too Successful) For A Mentor, Bob has become not only my mentor, but also my friend. Thus, I was honored when Bob agreed to share his insights regarding mentorship with my UC Santa Barbara entrepreneurial students.
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You can watch a 7-minute excerpt from Bob’s talk below.
Taking Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride
Bob began his discussion by describing how intimidated he felt when he approached the man who would become his mentor during the subsequent 40-years. What made Bob’s story all the more compelling was that his mentor was in attendance, watching his 60-something protégé discuss the day they met. Bob’s animation when describing this encounter over 4-decades later illustrates the impact his impulsive decision had on the remainder of his life.
As Bob tells the story, “I’m in the campus bookstore and I turn over and here’s the principal right next to me. His energy was just overpowering… like those static electricity balls. I could tell that he was totally committed, totally focused, very passionate. The energy was almost a little scary. So in a flash I think, ‘I’m hooking my wagon to this guy. I don’t know where it’s going, but I’m following this path,’ and it was a beginning of one hell of a wild ride.”
That Bob overcame his initial anxiety and reached out to his future mentor, is an important lesson for all young entrepreneurs. Establishing a mentor relationship is emotionally akin to asking someone out on a date. It is intimidating for a very good reason – you are risking personal rejection. It is more comfortable to avoid the risk of being rebuffed. However, as Bob makes clear, “The reward of extending yourself, is much greater than the possibility of being rejected. I can’t emphasize that enough, when seeking mentors.”
Not only is it daunting to establish a mentor relationship, it also requires you to subsume your ego. This is especially true at the outset of your relationship. Most worthwhile mentors will have little patience for anyone who is an unwilling student. As Bob notes, “You have to be willing to be a second banana. (It won’t work) if you’ve got to appear like you are absolutely on top of everything. Sometimes you have to let go of that, to let that process happen. A little vulnerability goes a long way.”
Six Roles Of Mentors
Bob went on to describe six roles that effective mentors play for their mentees. His insights were drawn from his experiences as both mentee and mentor, as he has had numerous opportunities to learn from his mentors and then put his observations into practice.
1. Taskmaster – “Quality matters. Quality in every endeavor. You’re only as good as your last interaction. Good interactions are like money in the bank.” Mentors challenge you to reject compromise, especially when it would be easier to take the easy path in the short term. An emphasis on quality makes it easier to commit to your goals.
2. Coalescer – “Once you’re in, you’re fully in. Whatever you do, don’t waffle.” Mentors do not allow you to hedge pivotal decisions. They force you to explore the facts and pursue a definitive path. Their unwavering confidence in your abilities fortifies you with the resilience required to not only make bold choices, but to also see them through to fruition.
3. Provocateur – “All mentors for me have encouraged me to be risky. They certainly didn’t get there by not taking chances.” The guidance of someone who has walked the path you are currently taking puts seemingly daunting risks into their proper perspective. Your mentor’s first-hand knowledge will embolden you when assessing the potential outcomes of key decisions.
4. Preceptor – “Being knowledgeable, there’s just no way you can fake it. Know the business… inside out. You need to have that whole package, or build it by connecting with someone who can assist you in those areas that (you) are weaker. Mentors have gifts in areas you don’t. You learn by being with them, walking with them, talking with them, hanging out with them.” Great mentors are great teachers. They freely share their knowledge with you and encourage you to become a life-long learner.
5. Sherpa – “Approach things with the mind of a beginner, so you’re seeing things with fresh eyes. When you’re going through changes… it’s a little bit like being an anthropologist. You’re trying to make sense out of a new situation and you don’t have this mind set of parameters that are limiting your thinking and what you’re seeing.” It is best to enter into every new situation humble, with the assumption that you do not have all the answers. The guiding hand of a mentor assists in this process by reminding you of this when your assumptions cloud your ability to draw insights from new information and experiences.
6. Champion – “Mentors can be cheerleaders in times of transition. Someone you can trust and confide in, in this sometimes cold world. Loyalty… it’s a two-way street. Basic commitment. I’m there for you, you’re there for me. No ifs, ands, or buts.” Healthy mentor relationships are not conditional. Each party respects and appreciates the other, even when one of them makes a mistake. Loyalty isn’t predicated on both parties always agreeing, but it is based on a deep level of mutual trust.
Draft With Your Mentor
As described in Don’t Do Tequila Shots With Your Mentor, Bob and I often bike together, as it offers us an opportunity to talk while engaging in a fun and healthy activity. Thus, it is not surprising that he used a cycling analogy to explain the way a mentor can supercharge your capabilities.
Bob pointed out that when several people ride together, the person in the front blocks the wind for those drafting behind them, noting that when, “you draft, the second person’s only uses 74% of the energy (of the first rider, while) the third person’s only uses 64%” of the energy required to maintain pace with the group. In this way, a mentor can lead the way and make the path easier for their protégé.
In addition to reducing the headwind for their understudies, Bob noted that mentors can often help their mentees challenge themselves by encouraging them to relish change. According to Bob it is ironically often our friends who resist such changes, “Sometimes your friend(s) have a vested interest in you staying the same. You’re growing into new roles, wanting to do (new) things, but your friends say, ‘Where did all of this come from?’ They know who you are and who you were. They don’t know who you’re going to be. Bob Dylan went electric (and) it changed music. All his folk singing friends, said, ‘What are you doing? You’re selling out! You’re a traitor! What is this?’ And of course, the rest is musical history.”
Bob went on to describe how riders often join “trains” of cyclists, especially on long rides. In such instances, the bikers join a group of faster riders for short spurts. These trains help reduce the monotony of long rides and encourage the riders to stretch their capabilities.
Continuing with his biking analogy, Bob described how mentors can help you offset a peer group’s desire to keep to you the same by encouraging you to abandon your comfort zone. In Bob’s words, “We can get really comfortable with a certain group, friends or co-workers, and we can kind of get stuck in their mindset. Drafting with mentors allows you to grow in new areas. Develop your own, more complete skill set. Mentors are invested in who you can become, not who you are right now. They see your potential, perhaps even more than you see it yourself. I know that was true for me.”
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