Reflections on Mentors

Ben Casnocha is hard at work at his book titled “My Start-Up Life: What a (Very) Young CEO Learned on His Journey Through Silicon Valley”; which Jossey-Bass (part of John Wiley & Sons) is publishing this spring.  I read a draft over Thanksgiving and I predict this book will end up becoming a New York Times bestseller – it is extraordinary (just like Ben.)  Ben has asked a number of his friends to write short essays (called “Braintrusts”) to include in the book.  I was honored that he asked me to write one on Mentors.  Following is my “Reflections on Mentors” which hopefully will make it into the book when it’s published this spring. 

My first mentor was my Dad. I remember going for a long walk with him near our house in Dallas when I was 13 where he actively stepped out of “dad” mode and went into “business mentor mode” for the first time. Part of the brilliance of his mentoring is that he realized I needed non-parental mentors, so he introduced me to a patient of his, Gene Scott, who had been an executive at several computer companies in the 1960s and 1970s. As a teenager, I had a monthly dinner with “Mr. Scott” and I got my first taste of how rewarding a mentoring relationship can be.

In college, I started two companies which both failed, but my mentors (and my Dad) stayed close to me and helped me learn, struggle through the businesses, and accept failure.

In my first successful company, Feld Technologies, one of our early clients – Stewart Forbes – became another influential mentor. While he taught me a lot directly, Stewart taught me how to learn by actively working with my mentors, versus just observing them. I learned that an active mentoring relationship – regular communications, a two-way exchange of ideas, and even some disagreements – is much more effective than a “lecture style” relationship.

When I was in my early 20s, my uncle Charlie Feld entered the scene. Charlie was the CIO at Frito-Lay and one of the most respected CIO’s in industry. Whenever Charlie was in Boston, he invited me along, unashamed to have his nephew in tow. He taught me to always be willing to include younger people in your activities so they can learn. And with his help, I learned a lot.

Not all my mentors were business people. Eric von Hippel, my graduate advisor at MIT, pushed me to figure out deeper lessons about life. When I dropped out of a Ph.D. program, got divorced, and sold my first company – all in the same year – Eric was there for me day and night to help me work through my first major personal crisis and determine how I wanted to respond to it. Eric taught me how to discover what I really wanted to do with my life, and then spend all my time doing it. Without a mentor, it would have taken me a much longer time to answer this critical question. Eric may have been in academia, but he could still play “life coach” to me, a good reminder that sometimes the best mentors guide you in areas outside their official domain of expertise.

When I sold my first company at age 27, I acquired two great mentors – Len Fassler and Jerry Poch. In addition to solid business advice, Len taught me how to be gracious in every situation. He emphasized the value of sticking with something through to the very end, whether good or bad. Jerry taught me how to always be direct and clear, no matter what the news. Even if I hadn’t gotten a dime for my first company, Len and Jerry’s lessons about graciousness, persistence, and candor would have more than paid for themselves many times over.

When I look back on these and all the other mentors I’ve had (and continue to have today) and the people whom I now mentor, one thing stands out: the rare, but brilliant moment when the relationship shifts, the distinction between mentor and mentee dissolves, and you become “co-mentors”. Even if you aren’t “peers,” the learning becomes bi-directional. Everyone in a mentoring relationship should strive for this equilibrium, because it is here where the greatest learning occurs.

It’s easy to take. It’s harder to give. The value, and joy, you derive from a mentoring relationship corresponds with the effort you put into it. When there’s a balance between the two the relationship can be extraordinary. Think about what you are learning from your mentors. Even more importantly, think about what you are teaching them.