Who’s on your “A” team?

Who’s on your “A” team?

Mentoring makes a difference. It’s the foundation behind the Board in every investment you make. Imagine considering an investment in a portfolio company and the founder says, “Nah, I got this. I don’t really need any input on how I make decisions or run the company.” As an observer you see the big picture, you can pose the challenging questions and bring in resources to move boulders that stand in the way of progress.

Mentors and sponsors are critical to YOUR success, too. You need both and understanding the difference is critical.

A mentor is an advisor. The person you can tell the good, the bad and the ugly to. You should feel comfortable sharing the intimate details of your career with this person, including crazy dreams, fears, goals and mistakes. A mentor brings a new lens of perspective, challenges your assumptions, sparks your mojo and keeps you focused on the prize. Your mentor is designed to provide a regular ongoing check-point to guide you in ways that keep you nourished and balanced in your work and your life.

A sponsor is an advocate – the person who carries your resume into the room when it comes time for a possible promotion. He or she is the person who will go out on a limb and vouch for you passionately, behind closed doors. They are spending valuable political and social capital on you and you have to articulate why you are worthy of that capital. To them, you tell the good, the good and the good. Your mentor and your sponsor are two different characters in your world. You use your mentor to brainstorm, to problem solve, to evaluate options and to determine how to position yourself with your sponsor (and sometimes your spouse!)

In the twenty plus years I’ve spent actively mentoring individuals and boards in their decision making, I see a common characteristic. High achieving folks like investment professionals, entrepreneurs and lawyers are, typically, very strong-willed. I know – news flash, right? Although a good quality to possess, this strength can also be a weakness because it can morph into a certain blind spot. Even when they’re doing a great job advising others, good leaders often struggle with the process of obtaining (and then integrating) advice from outside sources that apply to their own careers and life balance.

A recent survey of top earning professionals indicated that the value of formal mentorship increases as your peer group becomes more competitive, but that as professionals age they have fewer mentors to access because of a perception that they should have all the answers and asking for input seems weak. More than half of professionals under 30 have regular access to input from a mentor. That figure declines to 33 percent for Gen X professionals (between ages 30 and 44) and drops to 24 percent for professionals ages 45 to 66. Interestingly, it is precisely as we progress in our careers and our lives that we benefit most from an outside perspective as the challenges we face become more nuanced.

There’s a relatively simple antidote to this problem of inherent self-reliance and the narrowing views it engenders – get regular input from someone outside your own head space and circle of influence. You already know the value of this – you require it from your portfolio companies and it applies to your own life, too. Regular mentoring, like regular board meetings, create the environment where you can air seemingly innocuous or insurmountable problems, viewing them from alternate perspectives from which solutions can emerge before things go off the rails.

But, just taking input isn’t inherently going to solve the problems you’re going to face. If you fill your mentor’s role with your golfing buddy or your family, you have not found a source of objective feedback. Look for someone you trust, but who doesn’t necessarily have skin in the game. Look for a mentor with strong views, who will challenge you rather than tell you how smart and wonderful you are. There is no point in having an external sounding board that just goes along for the ride.

Here are five guidelines to help you create an effective mentoring relationship.

1. Mentors transcend careers. The best mentor is there for you at turning points, telling you to tie your shoes, find your soul, push the envelope, test the world.

2. Tough love and candor are in order. Look for a skilled mentor who is not afraid to voice their opinion … your “internal board” is no place for “yes” men and women. Look for someone who is actually slightly confrontational but who understands the need for teamwork.

3. Choose someone with a compass who won’t jump ship. Find a mentor who agrees on the overall direction your ship is headed … you’re inviting this person to have a voice in the strategic direction of your life… if you want to head out to sea, you don’t want someone who is always trying to keep you tied to the dock.

4. Choose someone who knows things you don’t. Think about who will help you identify the soil in which the trunk of your life can take root and thrive, not someone who will prune your branches to get you to fit into an (albeit gilded) industry pot. You want to get diversity of perspective, knowledge and experience. Remember, this is not your sponsor, it’s the person who will help you see things differently.

5. Be in it for the long haul. Mentoring is a relationship, it develops with regularity and it’s like a tune up for your career and your life.

How do you know when mentoring is working? When you hear the voice of your mentor in your head and it becomes your own.

Want to pick my brain for perspective on a topic that’s taking up head space for you? I’ve opened a handful of mentoring slots – click here to claim one.