Why Your Mentor Doesn’t Need to Be a CEO

By EverwiseDecember 29, 2015

Some of the most successful, famous and wealthy people attribute their success to mentors. Their mentors, however, are often not famous or exceptionally wealthy. They may have attained success but did not gain a celebrity status level or a CEO title.

For example, do you know who Benjamin Graham is? He was Warren Buffet’s mentor.

How about Zune Nguyen? He inspired Marissa Mayer to learn to think differently. Or how about Eric Roberts? He’s a Stanford professor and another one of Mayer’s mentors. 

So why is it that many ambitious business people believe that they must be mentored by a CEO or a celebrity – someone very well-known and recognized for their success?

The simplest reason is: it seems logical. If you want to be successful, look to the people who are the most successful and learn from them. However, that reasoning doesn’t play out in real life. Finding the right mentor is about finding someone who is the right fit for you.

Finding the Right Fit

As it turns out, a mentor who can help you progress in your career will meet a number of different criteria. And while there’s nothing wrong with status and success – or a CEO title –  mentorship is about things far broader than success, status or titles, even though they seem to be the standard benchmarks. Finding someone who is the “right fit” is more about finding someone who can come alongside you and fit into your world, while you fit into theirs. That relationship can take some time to build, and can last a lifetime or a moment or anywhere in between.

Learning from others – often from their mishaps and failures – can happen in a few minutes or over the course of weeks or months. Mentorship is about having someone ask you questions that challenge you to deeply consider your answers and help you sort out your thoughts. You don’t need a CEO to help you do that.

Mentorship is also about trusting someone to give you feedback that you can’t get elsewhere. This can be scary, because it means you need to be vulnerable enough to expose your gaps to someone who’s a bit further along their career path than you are. You need to be brave enough to admit your shortcomings in exchange for their feedback. It can be painful.

A mentor leads you to change, to try new things, take new actions, think differently, speak differently. A mentor is someone who will let you practice talking, presenting, asking and answering questions, so that when you do talk with CEOs, you’ll be full of confidence and ready to establish rewarding relationships.

Mentorship is leadership combined with vulnerability. It’s about learning from your mentor’s experiences – that person’s failures and disappointments. Many mentors want to advise others so that others can avoid the pitfalls they themselves had to work to resolve.

The face value of having a mentor who’s a celebrity in business, entertainment or sports may feed your ego, but it may also leave you somewhat undernourished. You have to be willing to look beyond the titles and accomplishments, see the real person, and let that person look deeper into your life. The fact is, having a CEO title doesn’t simply make someone a great leader, nor does it make that person vulnerable and selfless enough to be a great mentor. It can be just a title.

Plus, titles and leadership can be two different things. While leaders come in all different personalities and serve in different times, in general, great leadership and great mentorship are all about inspiring and influencing others. Even more, people who are great leaders and mentors desire that others do well, that others are successful and that others soar to heights even greater than themselves. They’re honest about their accomplishments but selfless about sharing their wisdom, knowledge, experience and limelight.

So if you’re looking for a mentor, a “great fit” boils down to looking for more than a title. Look for experience. Consider people whom you admire – ask yourself why you admire them. Observe their actions, read what they’ve published, follow them on social media. Find out mistakes they’ve made, how they overcame those challenges. Take note of how they got started, what things changed them and who they look to for inspiration.

And broaden your search. In fact, if you’re looking for a mentor, you’ll probably soon realize that you need to look for more than one person.You’ll soon realize that you need to build up a network of advisors. Even more importantly, your network needs to be diverse.

What would happen if you focused on building a network only of people who were CEOs of large companies in one industry? How many different points of view would you hear? How many different talents, skills and strengths would you learn from? It’s a bit like wearing only one color at all times – it may be a great color but it can be limiting.

Instead, what if you established a relationship with a diverse group of people – a CEO of a medium size, long-standing company; a director of a super large, global organization; an independent consultant with a broad scope of experiences; an entrepreneur who has failed more than once as well as succeeded. Stretch that out and include a teacher, a college roommate and a colleague from your own organization. Now, how many different opinions on the same issue do you think you’ll get?

Even if your goal is to become a CEO, a mentor who can help you the most, may or may not need to have a CEO title.  Examples often help show the reason why. Even when Atul Gawande, a successful surgeon, was well-established in his career, he asked his former teacher to be his mentor.The surgeon “compared the experience of this kind of coaching in medicine to the way professional musicians have coaches, whom they refer to as ‘outside ears.’”

A Great Mentor

In summary, you need outside ears to be successful – ears that hear different things – not the same tune – and can help you hear different melodies and harmonies, maybe even a few new tunes.4

A truly great mentor is someone with wisdom, generosity and care, someone who is willing to share thoughts, ideas and experiences. Someone who listens and asks you pertinent, sometimes uncomfortable questions.  Someone who will point you in the right direction and help you navigate your career or inspire you to make changes in your personal life. Someone who is willing to give you honest feedback, and stick around while you whine about it. Those are just some of the qualities of a truly great mentor.

So if you think you need a CEO for a mentor, consider one more example.

Golda Meir’s sister Shayna. She suffered from tuberculosis, and later Alzheimer’s disease, never earning substantial success herself. Yet, she inspired Golda to move to Palestine in 1921, and “she was Golda’s mentor … she was everything to Golda,” according to Alice Golembo, Meir’s niece.

Where would Golda be, if not for her sister Shayna, who was not a CEO?

So the fact remains. You need a mentor. You need several mentors. If one of them has the title of CEO, that’s fine, it’s just not the only definition of a great mentor.  



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