Speed Up Your Learning Curve: Get a Mentor
By Peter Urs Bender

So you're looking for a mentor. One of the very few things you won't find listed in the Yellow Pages. What is a mentor, anyway? A trusted counsellor or guide-and you may already have one or more, although you might not realize it. The name comes straight out of Greek mythology. Mentor, a friend of Odysseus, was entrusted with the education of Odysseus' son Telemachus. So each time you call someone Mentor, you are, in effect, referring to Odysseus' friend. There are three kinds of mentors, and not all of them may involve finding an individual to become your personal guide. There is mentoring through: 1. Birth, 2. Association, 3. Self-discipline. Before we get into details, why should there be a need for a mentor at all?

Formal education is important but it is only the tip of the iceberg we call "experience". It should supply you with the fundamentals to face life. But the basics-reading, writing, and arithmetic-simply give you skills to cope. They don't tell you when, where, and how to use those skills. Your education also won't take into account any of the complex social situations in which you're likely to find yourself. Hence the need for mentors.

Your guide or guides may have held your hand through the difficult steps of your first assignments. In business it could be anything from your first cold call to your first report to senior managers. In your private life, you need mentors, too. When your first child arrives you're looking for a lot of help, whether you're a man or a woman.

But the assistance likely won't end there. If you have selected your mentor carefully, he or she will always be on hand to consult when difficult tasks fall on your desk. Your mentor will help you step neatly through the minefields of corporate politics so you can avoid becoming entangled in the difficulties that befall beginners everywhere. Your skills may be tops, but your reading of the situations in which they are to be employed may be something less than perfect.

That's one of the major roles of a mentor, in fact-to help you avoid the pitfalls you probably won't see due to lack of experience. It's no shame to make a mistake. But it's humiliating to fall into a trap when you simply didn't see it. All of us have to learn, and making mistakes is part of the process. But a mentor can ease the way for you. I believe one of a mentor's greatest roles is to help you see where the traps are. You may still fall into them, but at least you were forewarned. And the experience will help with your "What Happened?" analysis later. It will hopefully sharpen your vision for the future. And it will also save you from making the same mistake twice.

The result of mentoring will speed up your learning curve. It also helps to enrich learning. You will acquire a much wider range of experiences than you likely would achieve otherwise. So how do you find this magical person, your personal mentor?

Mentoring by birth

   Remember, when you were conceived you were already the lucky sperm-9,999,999,999 didn't make it! But if you are a very, very lucky one, and a member of the privileged class, you'll find your mentors in your family. Let's take a concrete example.

   Bill Gates, today the richest man in the world, was skinny, shy, and awkward as a child. But his parents were dynamos in the Seattle world of the 50's and 60's.

   Described as "overachieving," Gates' father powerfully built, and 6'6" tall, was a prominent Seattle attorney. His mother served on charitable boards and ran the United Way. While he showed enormous talent for math and logic, young Bill, a middle child, was no one's idea of a natural leader, let alone a future billionaire who would reinvent American business. Yet think what influence Gates' parents must have had on him.

   We don't have the intimate personal details, but there is no question that Gates' parents would have been role models and mentors. While still in high school, for instance, Gates and a friend wrote a scheduling program for the private school that they attended. It also, coincidentally, placed them in the same class with the prettiest girls in school. This was at the time when computer programming was the province of scientists in white coats tending building sized machines. At the same time, the pair founded a traffic-analysis company for Seattle. Gates must have taken advice from his father about such a venture at such a young age. Today, Gates' fortune is estimated at $54 billion. And his mother's influence is still strongly at work.

   He has earmarked $1 billion over 20 years to establish the Gates Millennium Scholarship Program. He has promised another $750 million over five years to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, which includes the World Health Organization, the Rockefeller Foundation, UNICEF, pharmaceutical companies, and the World Bank.

   There are dozens of other examples where families played an important role in the mentoring of their children, particularly in politics. One has only to think of the Kennedy's, the Churchill's, and Margaret Thatcher. In our own country, Paul Martin, the Minister of Finance, has a strong family tradition of mentoring, and Martin has no doubt learned much about the art from his equally famous politician father.

   Even when money and power are not major factors in the mentoring process, the encouragement is there. Michelle Kwan, the remarkable, young US figure skater, did not come from a wealthy background. Her family is typical middle class. But it has always backed, encouraged, and guided her in figure skating activities, including the selection of mentoring coaches. She is the first to say that she could not have done it without their support.

   Comedian Jim Carey, today one of the highest-priced actors in the world at $20 million per project, had very humble beginnings here in Toronto. His parents were janitors, but fostered the talent in their son over and over again.

   Teachers also often act as mentors. There is a certain validity to the "teacher's pet" experience. School teachers are often among the first "outsiders" to recognize talent that needs encouragement. And they have no hesitation about supplying it. It may seem unfair that certain children are the target of a teacher's extra-mural counselling while others are not. But it's a fact that life isn't fair.

Mentoring by association

   This is the kind of mentoring most of us are familiar with. An individual, let's call the person a "Seeker," realizes he or she could profit from more experienced guidance. From someone who "knows the ropes." So that individual sets out to find assistance. But where to find such a person?

   You have a better chance to find a fit body on a volleyball, tennis, or handball court than in a supermarket. Join an association in your field, or a health club, or a sport organization. Then work to get on one of the association's committees. (You deserve some punishment on earth for a term of office!) You will quickly spot the person you think might be of assistance to you, and quickly get a sense of whether or not that individual might welcome your approach.

   I have had the experience on a personal basis. When I was already an accomplished speaker, I was approached by a young man who told me he wanted to become a speaker. He told me he saw me as a role model, and he had read the Secrets of Power Presentations a few times already. Naturally, I was impressed and pleased. But speaking is a tough job. It's the easiest business to get into-and the toughest to stay in. At that time, I was working very hard myself to establish my own reputation. I had no time to be a mentor to anyone.

   But that young man volunteered. He came and helped me to organize my Grade 12 Speaking Contest. Not just once, but over several years. His first assignment was to get the pizza. By the end he was giving out the prizes. He also came with me to speaking engagements. He helped me with my arrangements, and listened carefully to my platform presentations.

   Naturally, we talked about things as time went on. I gave him pointers and suggestions. More importantly, he followed them. And this raises a good point. Nothing is as discouraging to a mentor as someone who seeks help, then doesn't take the advice. It will kill the relationship very quickly.

   The young man's true interests lay in marketing, and at a certain point in time he suggested we might collaborate on a marketing book. I knew all about the difficulties of self-marketing in a competitive environment so I agreed.

   Secrets of Power Marketing: Promote Brand You, by Peter Urs Bender and George Torok, was the result. I had become George's mentor, and eventually that mentorship broadened not only into productive activity, but also into true collaboration, beneficial to both.

   Today, George Torok is still a licensee of my programs, and is perusing his own course as an author and speaker on marketing and creativity. But we still do work together, and both of us immediately think of the other when projects arise on which we think teamwork might be useful.

   This relationship demonstrates another important aspect of mentoring. Eventually the "mentee" no longer needs the mentor. The individual should be capable of going his or her own way-considerably wiser from the experience.

   Often, both go their own way, and seldom meet again. That occurs when the mentor has had more of a "teaching" role. But more often, the mentoring relationship develops into a true friendship, and results in life-long benefits to both. When one individual is willing to fully accept and live with the shortcomings of the other, the trust that is generated becomes a very powerful force indeed.
Mentoring through self-discipline

   Sometime individuals want and need mentoring, but cannot find a suitable guide. That's when self-discipline comes into play. Mentors are everywhere. They're on the shelves of your local library, the Internet, on tapes, videos, DVDs and CDs. There has never in history been such an opportunity to learn without interference. Think of it! Little more than a century ago, public libraries were barely established. I remember my own father talking enthusiastically about "Mechanics Institutes" where unschooled, untrained people could go to borrow books to learn more on their own. Today almost all this information is available on the Internet. You need not even step outside your own home to access it!

   I'm at the stage in my own profession where I don't need a mentor anymore. I now start to get complimentary lifetime memberships-a sign life must be over soon. But I still watch Biography-on TV and on the Internet. There I find the histories of both of my contemporaries and those who have gone before me, and try to apply the lessons they have learned. In fact, when I'm stumped, I often turn to Biography to see how others have handled the same problem.

   My assistant George Hancocks is a classic example of self-disciplined mentoring. Since coming to work for me he has had to face a wide range of technological challenges associated with learning new computer programs and systems-all of them unfamiliar to him. In the beginning, I assisted him to learn the programs he needed to help me. But that learning curve took only a few short months.

   He doesn't have the time to take courses or train in the traditional classroom manner. He heads directly for the Internet, for instruction manuals, and for any how-to books, videos, or CD's that seem to have a bearing on his work. This doesn't mean he can solve all his technical problems himself. He still needs what I call "mentoring assistance" from time-to-time. But he looks first, learns what he needs to know more about. Then he formulates questions that go right to the heart of the problem. The time he might need from a personal mentor is thus greatly reduced.

   There is one principle of mentoring, however, that is key. What was given must, at some point, be given back. Whether you choose a mentor or a mentor chooses you, remember that mentoring is a two-way street. When you've reached the point you needed a mentor to help you to, look back. Is there someone there who needs your help? Be generous. We all have to start somewhere (with a little help from our friends)!


Peter Urs Bender is one of Canada’s most dynamic and entertaining business speakers. He lives and works out of Toronto. He is the author of four best-selling business books: Leadership from Within, Secrets of Power Presentations, Secrets of Power Marketing, Secrets of Face-to-Face Communication, and Gutfeeling.
To read excerpts from his books visit www.PeterUrsBender.com.