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I’ve had more mentors than anyone I know.
Without a father in my life, I grew up hungry for advice — which gave me a reason to make my relationships with mentors more personal and more meaningful than the average mentor-mentee relationship.
Over time, I developed three simple principles about mentorship that might be helpful as you look for mentors on your journey or as you guide young mentees.
Coming in with a perspective from your generation that they’ll be able to share with their colleagues is a great way to provide value.
1. Giving, not just getting
I learned to always provide the mentor with at least one bit of information that she/he wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Mentors tend to be older than you and work with other older-than-you people. Coming in with a perspective from your generation that you know they’ll be able to share with their colleagues is a great way to immediately provide value.
Now that I’m sometimes in a mentor role, here’s how one of my mentees at Compass recently gave me a valuable insight. She said, “A lot of people in the company are feeling like we should have more regular all-company meetings.” That was very useful for me to hear, and I was able to act on it immediately.
When I was a mentee, I always made sure to get at least one piece of advice that I could put into action within a month.
2. Taking their advice so they know their time was used wisely
When I was a mentee, I always made sure to get at least one piece of advice that I could put into action within a month. I’d ask, “Do you think I should interview at X place?”
If my mentor said yes, I’d follow their advice then circle back and tell them how it went. This made it clear that I valued their wisdom and made them feel invested in my success.
Remember, these people are unbelievably busy — and yet people waste their time all the time. I wanted to make sure that in my interactions with them, they felt like I was respecting their time.
I saw my mentorship relationships change when I began asking personal questions.
3. Asking for personal life advice — not just professional career advice
Though at first I was nervous to do so, I saw my mentorship relationships change when I began asking personal questions. I’d ask questions like “How do you know when you have found the person you should marry?” Or “How do you balance work and family?”
At first, I would only ask the life-advice questions right at the end, even though it was what I craved the most at that time. It turned out, though, that my mentors actually wanted to give personal advice more than professional advice. People are people regardless of how successful they are, and most people have more fun talking about topics that don’t feel like work.
After each interaction, I’d send both an email and a handwritten thank-you note within 24 hours, and mention the specific bit of advice that had seemed most valuable. (If I was worried my letter wouldn’t get there within a day, I’d often FedEx it to make sure the memory of our conversation was still fresh.)
A month later, I’d email them to tell them how I’d actually used their advice and I’d share how it had helped me. Then, a month or so after that, I’d send an email saying something like “The advice you provided when we last met helped me in X way. I always get so much out of our conversations together. Would you be open to meeting again this month or next?”
They all wrote back and met for a second time. And a third and a fourth.
I honed my approach to mentorship over many years by carefully observing what helped me connect more deeply with individual people.
Those mentors helped me so much throughout my career. With advice, with connections, with support and with friendship. I promise you that this mentor strategy will work just as well for you as it did for me.
Now I know this all sounds a little strategic.
But it’s not a trick or a game — it works because it’s the result of actually thinking about what mentors get out of the exchange and making sure to deliver that to them.
I didn’t come up with my approach to mentorship out of thin air. I honed it over many years by carefully observing what helped me connect more deeply with individual people. Anything that worked once, I tried again. If it worked a second time, I started doing it every time.
I also did some of my learning the hard way by getting direct feedback from mentors on how to become better. Like when I emailed a thank-you note to the legendary Vernon Jordan who was a partner at Lazard at the time (he passed away earlier this year).
Within minutes, my phone rang. It was his assistant Jeannie Adashek. “Let me give you some advice,” she said. “Don’t just send an email to Mr. Jordan. When you meet with someone like him, you should take out a pen and paper and send a real note.”
Finding people who can advise and support you is much easier than most people imagine if you think about how they can have a good experience mentoring you.
The next time I saw her, she took me downstairs to the Crane & Co. store at the bottom of Rockefeller Center and helped me buy stationery. Since that day, I have written more than 10,000 handwritten notes — from thank-you notes to holiday cards to happy birthday notes and more.
Over the years, these principles helped me build countless genuine relationships with people who had no business spending so much time coaching a young upstart like me. I would not be anywhere near where I am today without the support of my mentors.
But finding people who can advise and support you is much easier than most people imagine if instead of just thinking about what you want out of the relationship, you also think about how they can have a good experience mentoring you.
Excerpted with permission from the new book No One Succeeds Alone: Learn Everything You Can From Everyone You Can by Robert Reffkin. Copyright © 2021 by Robert Reffkin. Used with permission from Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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