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 Ances​try​.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.