“Successful people turn everyone who can help them into sometime mentors!” - American politician John C. Crosby (1859-1943)
In recent diatribes, I shared tidbits about some of the people who mean the most in my life.
From my loving mother and the most loyal and valued friends to a strange, but truly unique long-distance pseudo-soul mate, I have tried to divulge a few thoughts on why these people are important to me and how they have impacted my very existence, both past and present.
However, since it’d take me a good year (or longer) to acknowledge each of the people whom have positively influenced me and my life’s course, I want to “close out” this quasi-miniseries by writing briefly about mentors.
Though I have yet to see a CNN/USA Today poll on it, I doubt most people - both young and old - can claim a mentor of their own. Interestingly, I would put myself in this category. And not for a lack of trying to seek one out, but mostly because I have yet to find someone that completely fits the bill. Instead, I have a number of “sometime mentors” as Crosby would deem them.
This is not to denigrate the contributions and value of any of my former or current bosses and professional mentors, but I actually get more guidance on what to do with my adult life, personal and professional, from the biographies of dead men I admire and television than any living person. Once again, I must mention Ben Franklin.
Still, I’ve had possibly the best supervisors one could ever ask for and owe many of my professional successes, however limited, to these individuals. But I realize none of these have yet to fully fit the mold to serve as my life mentor.
So what is a mentor? Better yet, what should a mentor do? Good question. Crosby believed “mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.” Personally, I believe a mentor should serve three main roles: soundboard, compass, credibility.
A soundboard isn’t just a parent to ask for advice or a friend you share a dilemma. Too often, friends ask for advice when all they want is confirmation. Other times, a friend may truly solicit honest advice, but not act upon it. And then there are times when one simply shares a situation with a friend just to check the box that says to oneself, “what I’m doing is okay, because I talked to X about it.”
Instead, a soundboard is a two-way road where both mentor and mentee discuss a situation from start-to-finish with the intention being to find a solution for the root of the situation, issue or concern. Mentors don’t give you answers and simple responses, they give you feedback and direction.
Direction speaks to the second role of a mentor: compass. As I stated in last week’s diatribe, my mother has served as my compass for much of my life, at least the first 18 years or so. But once I set foot on the Forty Acres at The University of Texas, a life point (four-year university) my mom has never really experienced, she could no longer be my only compass.
As a compass, a mentor is someone who has “been around the block” so to speak. He or she should be someone that knows more about where you’re going instead of where you’ve been. If you want to be the next John F. Kennedy, don’t expect JFK-like direction from John F. Kerry. No disrespect. So while I have tons of former and current bosses whom I deeply entrust and respect, I know they can never be my life’s true mentors if none of them have any experience with being politicians, entrepreneurs, educators or award-winning authors.
And, lastly, this ties right into the final but all-too-important element of what a mentor should have, credibility. I learned the ins and outs of the public relations industry from some of the best professionals in sports, political, academic, corporate and nonprofit organizations. Each of these PR practitioners had unique skills and lessons to pass along to me. I am forever indebted. Yet none of these PR maestros can help me get my book published or ensure I’m elected to the Austin City Council.
Credibility comes from experience and success. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is one of the richest men in the world, but the sports teams he has owned - the Portland Trailblazers and Seattle Seahawks - have had very limited success under his stewardship. I may ask Mr. Allen for advice on starting my own company, but that company most definitely won’t involve professional sports. Paris Hilton is all over TV and magazines, but she wouldn’t exactly make the perfect mentor if you wanted a career in Hollywood.
So the main reason I have yet to find a mentor is because of this last factor. I have so many different and lofty aspirations and goals - write several books, be a worthwhile politician, serve as a university lecturer, and run a nonprofit organization among other things - and I’m not quite sure there’s some magical person out there who can bring credibility to the table in enough of those categories.
But I do have a list of dream mentors:
Malcolm Gladwell - Author of #1 International Bestsellers, Blink and Tipping Points and writer for New Yorker and previous New York bureau chief for the Washington Post. Reasons: His writing skill and ability to remain interesting.
Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter - One of the bestselling musical artists of the last 10 years, CEO/President of the largest hip-hop label (Def Jam), came up from street corner to corporate boardroom. Reasons: Career longevity, street smarts, and general relevance to pop culture.
Will Smith - One of the biggest names in Hollywood since the mid-‘90s, married to Jada Pinkett, father of three, owns own production company (Overbrook) which follows the Tom Cruise model of producing his own flicks. Reasons: Career diversity (rapper-turned-TV star-turned-movie star), obviously good father and husband.
So, as you can see, it’ll be hard for just about anyone to overcome the credibility issue with me because I expect my mentor to be a damn-near household name.
But, you should know this by now: I believe nothing is impossible for me, not even finding the perfect mentor.
I’m currently accepting applications and the selection process could take a lifetime. And “sometime” mentoring work is an option.