To develop as a successful leader, you need a strong support team around you to lift you up, encourage you, challenge you, give you some direction and help you along the way. That team should include one or more people who builds trust, models positive behaviors and offers the benefits of experience.
These people will take different forms at different times in your life. Call them “mentors” or “coaches” or “Jedi masters”, they will influence and invest in different aspects of you at different places in your journey. But what should you look for in a good mentor, and how will you know if you’ve found the right one for you?
First, let’s dispel an assumption that keeps a lot of people from benefitting from mentors throughout their lives: There is not one end-all, be-all guru that is going to fall into your life and deliver All The Secrets. There will be many people who play an important role in your development, as long as you are open to receive from them.
So, what makes a good mentor?
An effective mentor understands that his or her role is to be dependable, engaged, authentic and tuned in to the needs of others. To illustrate, let me share two stories about mentors who’ve made key differences in my life.
My First Mentor
Outside my family, my first mentor was Ted Mallires. Mr. Mallires was a music teacher who not only taught the arts but also helped me develop confidence, reliability and a no-quit attitude. We met when I was in fifth grade. He handed us yellow flutes and taught us how to make music instead of just noise.
Through his instruction and with his encouragement, I learned to play several instruments including clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, bass horn and French horn. Guided by Mr. Mallires, we learned to bring discordant sounds together to form a symphony, and through that process I developed a love for classical music and appreciation for the great composers, including my favorite, Beethoven.
I reconnected with Mr. Mallires a few years ago at a reunion in Michigan. What a joy to be in a room full of people who haven’t been together in over three decades, all of us sharing our favorite memories of this special man who helped shape our lives.
I had four years with him, but he taught young people for more than 40, one student out of many during one-tenth of his time invested in kids, but that time was pivotal for me. Growing pains and a feeling I didn’t quite belong anywhere. Mr. Mallires’ ability to add value to all of us gave me a sense of belonging and connectedness. Mr. Mallires inspired me to be a collaborative, inclusive and influential leader.
My Career Mentor
Early in my career, I was blessed to work with a creative mentor who taught me one of the most important lessons of my life, wisdom I carry with me and use every day. This mentor taught me the value of asking good questions. Through these lessons, she showed me how to create a vision for my future and how to remove limiting beliefs that prevented me from fulfilling my vision for my future.
My creative mentor also introduced me to some life-changing books and taught me how to get out of my own way. How to think big and transform those thoughts into right actions.
This mentor also taught me how to avoid being held back by other people, by their criticism and limiting beliefs. No matter what you try to accomplish in your life, you will always have someone out there trying to tell you why you can’t do it or have it or be it. But you can, and that’s one thing this mentor taught me. She put it this way: don’t go out there looking for work that already exists. Figure out what you want to do first, what you want your next career step to be, then find a company that will allow you to cause that to happen. But don’t stop at just one. Find your best match. Will you run into some roadblocks? Sure. These will make it seem like what you envision can’t or won’t happen. But keep going, keep looking. Never settle.
This is a much different perspective than the average job seeker has, and I’m so grateful I learned it early in my career, because it has served me well ever since.
What are you looking for in a mentor? What are some ways a mentor has or could make a difference for you?