I was an infamously odd student in business school and law school. I never bought books, rarely went to class, and hardly studied for exams. But I did spent those four years starting businesses and courting many mentors to help me along the way. Instead of studying for my classes, I’d set up new meet & greet meetings with successful alums. At the end of every meeting, I’d ask, “Would you consider being my mentor?” — and every time, I got the same response.
Ignorance is Blasphemy: Why You Need a Mentor in the First Place. It’s not about what you know or don’t know; the biggest challenges you’ll face in business are the things you don’t know that you don’t know. Mentors will help identify areas of opportunity or risk that weren’t even on your radar. Plus the quickest path to success is to simply model the person who has already achieved what you want to. Identify step by step how they achieved their goals, and you have a proven pathway to your own success. A valuable mentor will provide you this roadmap and a lot of sage wisdom along the way.
Machiavelli vs. Mother Teresa: Choosing a Mentor. Who should you pick as your mentor? I’d personally recommend the smartest person who’s also going to answer your emails/calls and be the hardest on you. The value of a mentor is not to give you an ego boost or save your feelings from getting hurt. You want someone who’s going to push you to be the absolute best professional you can be, and call you out when you’re not living up to your potential. Consider whose advice will ring most true to you; it may be Shpigler the Sharkor the ever-positive Matt Cutts, but pick the person whose points will pop with you personally.
You’ll Have to Put Out: Getting the Most From Mentors. Mark Suster aptly puts it, you have better chance of getting struck by lightning than having an amazing mentor find you. You need to ask folks for help directly. To find them, start with personal relationships and identify people in your sphere of influence who have some sentimental or personal (and nonfinancial) incentive to help you. Once you find that mentor, it’s your responsibility to continuously seek out their advice and build that relationship. Their counsel is only as valuable as the time you put in to seek it out. (Here are some of my networking tips for entrepreneurs.)
I Did It My Way: When to Follow/Ignore Mentor’s Counsel. There’s no 11th commandment, “Thou Shalt Always Follow Thy Mentors Advice.” It’s up to you to take the input and counsel from a lot of data points and make the best decisions you can. If you’re constantly going against the counsel of your mentors, you may want to question your stubbornness. However, if you blindly follow what you mentors tell you to do, you’ll have to question your backbone. Think of mentors’ advice as a set of ingredients you can pick and chose from — it’s up to you to make the main course. Lincoln may have built a Team of Rivals, but he was resolute in making the final decision he thought best.
In those 6 years since grad school, I’ve built Docstoc into one of the most popular websites in the world to help grow startups and small businesses. And I’ve achieved this in large part not because I’m smarter or more talented than the average entrepreneur, but because I’ve made it habit of seeking out and relying on the counsel of mentors much smarter and more successful than myself. In fact, I have a secret to share: since those days at grad school I’ve probably asked over 50 people to be my mentor, and nobody has turned me down yet.
This piece originally appeared in the WSJ: http://blogs.wsj.com/accelerators/2013/05/24/jason-nazar-the-secret-to-getting-and-keeping-mentors/