No man is an island, as John Donne said in 16th century. Never truer than today, the 21st century demands a fast track learning curve. One factor that dramatically shortens that curve is a good mentor. Hard to find, but invaluable, the insights provided by someone’s personal experience can really jump-start a new venture.
Mentorship is like a chemical reaction between two reactants, or ingredients. In the laboratory, to get a reaction to take place, they are mixed together in a recipe of proportion. The energy of the molecules as they bump up against each other causes them to give, take, or share electrons, changing the structure of both reactants into a new chemical product. The exchange of electrons is somewhat predictable, based on the laws of the physical universe as well as previous experiments, yet each incident has the potential to do something different.
Mentorship is similar in several ways. The student brings the question to the business laboratory, and the mentor brings the experience. Mixing them initiates a reaction that delivers a new product. The mentor’s experience provides knowledge based on a previous experiment, reducing the time it takes for the student to get results.
In my new role at Adobe, moving from a digital marketing manager to a product manager, I was confident in my knowledge of digital marketing as well as our products. I knew I could mentor my team well, but there were challenges in my new discipline that I felt would benefit from an experienced hand. I also felt it was important for me to get smart really fast.
I could go online, read books, and gather the knowledge I needed, but an important ingredient would be missing: the really personal insights of experienced mentors that teach the painfully hard lessons. Often, those who are successful find it difficult to share those lessons publicly. In the confidential role as a mentor, closely held notes are unfolded and put on the table, ready to be used as precious ingredients.
As I made plans for a new initiative in my new role, I could think of nothing more valuable than creating a mentorship board, compiling a wealth of knowledge from hand-picked experts in a range of appropriate disciplines: legal, sales, infrastructure, technology. All that knowledge, applied collectively to this initiative, had the potential to set this project on a successful trajectory as well as avoid repeating failed experiments.
I also realized the importance of using both internal and external mentors. Reaching out to those with proven expertise in the areas where my competence was untested would lend support in weak spots. Getting those lighthouse beacons to shine their valuable insight on my new board was important. How would I get them to participate?
In business, like in the laboratory, there is give and take. In chemistry, it’s the energy exchange of electrons. Some molecules give, others accept. In mentoring, it’s the exchange of knowledge. Mentors give, students accept. There is a caveat here.
Even in chemistry, when the givers are depleted, the reaction stops. If the receivers have taken up as many electrons as they can handle, the reaction also stops. Same way with mentoring. If you use up all the knowledge without responding in kind, replenishing the well with your own contributions, the mentoring relationship ends. All those good feelings the mentor experienced from watching your success will start to evaporate, and the mentoring well runs dry.
In creating a mentorship board for your next initiative, there are three important things to bring to the table, or laboratory, as the case may be:
1. Knowledge. The mentor has expertise you need, but guess what? You likely have valuable expertise to share. Be generous.
2. Relationships. Mentors are usually more than willing to make introductions and network on your behalf. You should do the same, whenever appropriate. Be aware.
3. Manners. Write thank you notes, give credit where it is due, and reflect praise and recognition back to the mentor. Be gracious.
I have had some fabulous mentors, from college professor Dr. Lon Adams, who taught me the art of presentation, to Craig Sherman, past chief revenue officer at Ancestry.com, and now partner at Meritech Capital. They both feel the satisfaction of acting in a mentorship role. I remain grateful at every turn and generous with my own resources. Our simultaneous and balanced exchanges continuously replenish the mix, extending rewards far into the future.