Career Advice Tuesday = “How Did You Find Your Mentor”

August 17, 2010

During our presentation at Black Hat – one of the session attendees asked this question:

Attendee:  Many people who speak about career development talk about the concept of finding a mentor.   In my experience, finding a mentor is not that easy.  Can you tell us if you have a mentor? How did you find them? How has the relationship helped you?

Lee’s Response:   As a note – at the conference I touched on this – but did not elaborate in full – my response below represents a complete answer – that I hope all find helpful.   Please remember that this is what worked for me.  The components of these relationships may serve as the foundation for the development of solid mentor/mentee relationships.

I think that mentorship is something that happens naturally.  It is very difficult to force a mentor and “mentee” relationship.  For me, I have been fortunate to have a few mentors throughout my professional career – one from my personal life, one was an employer, and a few have been my clients in business.

I will tell you that the one thing that all of these relationships had in common was that the mentor believed that they were going to be able to get some unique value in return, for the time and guidance that they shared with me.  This is a fact that gets overlooked in most mentoring relationships.  If you are on the hunt for a mentor, it would be best to recognize a relationship where you can provide some value in return to the mentor.  By developing this return on investment, the mentor has incentive to commit the necessary time and share the knowledge that you are searching for, to aid you in your professional development.

To take you inside my mentoring relationships – I can explain in some detail how these relationships developed for me. 

1) The personal relationship – My personal mentor was someone who I first met when I was 15 years old.  He was a successful local businessman who was initially  my father’s friend, and eventually became his employer.   Initially, we bonded over two things that are very common - a father/son relationship (he has a son that is about 10 years younger than me) and baseball.  As I got older, we remained close. 

When my father past away, he became a surrogate to me – and helped provide me with some guidance as I was beginning my career.  I believe that this was primarily out of love, but it could have also derived from a sense of obligation (to my dad).    He became my sounding board for my career and life decisions.  He taught me about business over the course of many lunches and dinners, holidays, and Sunday football games.   The key here, was that whenever he was willing to teach, I was willing to listen.  I made spending time with him a priority (not solely because of business, I happen to like him a great deal as well) , because I knew that this education was not available to all and I was fortunate to have access.

So the question becomes what did he get by serving as my mentor.  I believe that he received a few things:  the sense of returning my father’s friendship and loyalty in a substantial way, a lifelong friendship with me (I do not believe that anything is unconditional – but this relationship is pretty close) and the assurance that I would “pay it forward”, and serve in a similar capacity with his son (we know that children have a general reluctance to listening to their parents). 

2) My past employer -  When I began recruiting, I worked for a man whose background was quite different than mine.   The best way that I could describe him is that he was “Tony Soprano-esque.”  He was a street smart man from Brooklyn, NY who did not have any formal education.  However, he had an incredible work ethic, a desire to succeed, an amazing way with people, and a dominant personality.  In addition, he had 20 years of recruiting experience, ranging from executive assistants to CIOs.    

By sitting by his side for three years, I received exposure to every element of  the recruitment business.  I was able to take note, about things that he did which I agreed with, and things that I disagreed with.  As I observed, he willfully shared his knowledge with me, and allowed me to experience victories and to experience disappointment.  

The key here is that he provided me with the opportunity to learn, with the benefit of his guidance.  (this is key element in all mentoring relationships)

With an employer, it is pretty easy to understand his motivations.  The better his mentorship, the better off the company would be  both financially and in terms of capacity( in a small business “the company” was him.)   By training me, this enabled him to spend more time away from the office and significantly increased revenue for the business.

In the end, the relationship ended when I decided that I had outgrown him, and there were not any more lessons to be learned.   However, when I left the company, I did so in an honorable way and he was honorable in return. 

I would have very much liked to continue the relationship after my departure, but he was an old school guy.  He believed that once I left the company, that we were now competitors, as opposed to potential partners.   (This was one of his business principles that I did not agree with.)

3) My clients -  Being in my own recruiting business for the past 11 years, I have had the fortunate opportunity to interact with many business leaders.    I have had exposure to entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, technology business leaders (CIO’s and CISO’s), and business leaders in other professions.

With many of these interactions, the relationship was very common – they needed information security talent, and we were able to supply them with this talent.  However, there have been a few key people whom I have gotten to know personally, beyond our standard business relationship.

The key element that  these select  folks have in common is that at one point in their lives they were all young businessmen, and they had some appreciation for the struggles of  a young entrepreneur.  I believe that as they got to know and trust me, they made themselves increasingly available.  In addition, the more success that I had in helping them grow their businesses, the more comfortable I felt in asking them questions about mine.

(I believe that this is key as well, mentees have to realize where the lines are drawn in these relationships, and make sure not to overstep these bouunds – this can be a delicate dance.)

In closing, I think that I have been quite fortunate to have such a diverse group of mentors.  In addition to developing a professional link, I also have found that there has been some very good alignment with key personality traits that we all share.   As I also look at these mentors, I realize that they are all “self made” business people – meaning that their success has been derived from themselves and their efforts, rather through means of  inheritance or birthright.    This is something that I strongly relate to, appreciate, and respect.   

At the point at which I first  met them,  I saw in all of my mentors a person whom I aspired to become, and I believe that they saw in me, an earlier version of themselves. 

If you can recognize  and develop theses simialr relationships, you are on the correct path to finding a meaningful mentor/mentee relationship.

Hope this helps,

Lee (and Mike)

Posted by lee | Filed Under Advice, Career Advice Tuesday 

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