Oswald Letter

Who Is Your Mentor?

“A trusted counselor or guide.”  That’s Webster’s definition of a mentor.

Who do you have in your professional life that you can trust for sound counsel and guidance?

It’s critical to your success and, likely, your emotional well-being to have people to whom you can turn when you’re struggling, need advice, or just want some validation of what you’re doing. Often it’s hard to turn to your boss and show your vulnerability. You want her to view you as being confident, self-assured, and having everything under control. You don’t want to show any sign of weakness, it might get in the way of the next big assignment or, worse yet, a raise or promotion. You can’t really turn to those who report to you because they look to you for leadership and guidance. So who is it that you can turn to when you need a fresh set of eyes on a problem?

Who is your mentor?

Now remember, I’m talking about someone you can turn to in your professional life. Your spouse doesn’t count here. He or she may be a great confidant, but in my book they don’t qualify as a mentor. I’m looking for that sage who has seen or done it all. They have a wealth of experience facing similar issues that you now face in your career. A good mentor demonstrates sound judgment and is willing to be completely honest with you — sometimes brutally so! A true mentor has to be someone who is trustworthy because to be truly valuable to you, you must be able to share openly with him.

So, who is your mentor? Or, should I say mentors, because it’s wonderful if you can have more than one. As with anything, people bring different strengths to the role of mentor. You may have a mentor who is really strong at reading and dealing with people. When you’re faced with a tough personnel problem or need advice on how to handle a prickly client, she’s the “go to” person. You may have a second mentor who has a brilliant analytical mind. When you are dealing with a particularly complicated matter, this mentor always has the most to offer. And, you may have another mentor who has a vast amount of experience in your field. They know your job inside and out and can bring intimate knowledge of your industry that proves invaluable to you when you seek their advice.

Who are your mentors?

If you’re looking for a mentor or mentors, here are two places that I’ve found valuable, trusted counselors:

Inside your own organization. Three years out of college, I was still working for the company that had hired me when I graduated when the business was acquired. I went from working in a small, entrepreneurial firm to one that was owned by a multinational organization. It was culture shock for me, but it was also a great opportunity. Luckily, I found a new mentor in the acquiring company. He was 25 years my senior and had achieved a high level within the organization, but he was willing to take an interest in me and my career. He not only had been successful in the industry, he had succeeded at my new employer. He helped me navigate the new organization and provided great career advice. Twenty years later, he’s still one of my mentors and has never disappointed. I trust him explicitly.

Let me give you one more example of finding a mentor inside the organization for which I worked. In a previous position, I was elevated to the top position in the company. The other obvious choice would have been the company CFO who was 15 years my senior. He was incredibly bright and approached things very differently than I did. Instead of getting the job, he ended up reporting to me. Sounds like potential for disaster, but instead it turned out to be a great partnership. He had strengths I didn’t possess. He had a wonderfully analytical mind and always brought a different perspective to our discussions. When I left the organization, I thanked him for everything that I had learned from him, certainly more than he received from me, though he reported to me. It might not be a great idea to look for a mentor in your direct reports, but under the right circumstances it might just work. It did for me.

Within a professional organization. I’ve been part of an industry group since the early days of my career, and I’ve benefited immensely from it. I have found business partners, board members, employers, great friends and, yes, trusted mentors through my involvement in the organization. This association includes hundreds of companies run by people who are facing similar issues to the ones I face every day. Over time, I came to recognize those who headed well-run businesses or were particularly bright. And as I developed relationships with some of them, I was able to identify a few who have the traits I look for in my mentors. People who show sound, measured judgment. Those who have a demonstrated track record of success.  And those who are trustworthy. Once I had identified them, I learned from them and sought their advice and continue to do so today.

Bottom line is that you need to have a mentor and preferably more than one. If you find the right people, they will become invaluable to you. You can turn to them when you’re facing your toughest challenges, whether it be for trusted guidance or moral support — the good ones will provide both. Why walk alone when you can benefit from the experiences and wisdom of others?