My mentor, John Maxwell, has written and spoken about being mentored by the great coach John Wooden among others. I recently received a question by email asking: "How does one go about getting the greatest NCAA coach (John Wooden) as a mentor? Did he (Maxwell) just ask for regular meetings and what does mentorship look like?"
I will admit that getting John Wooden as a
coach is an extraordinary circumstance involving an extraordinary leader. But on
the other hand, John Maxwell didn't start there. It was only after nearly 30 years
of successful leadership that John was able to connect with Coach Wooden. It was
John's desire to grow and his great passion to add value to people's lives that
made the difference. The fact that John is a tremendous student is also a very
significant part of the story.
Over the years I've wondered which is more
important -- to have a great mentor or to be a great student? The easy answer is
both. But more and more I think the secret is in being a great student. You can
have the most brilliant mentor in the world, even a famous one, but if you aren't
ready to pay the price, dig in, learn and change, it won't matter.
John's early stories about offering to pay $100.00 for an hour of someone's time
just to ask questions and learn. Back then $100.00 might as well have been
$1,000.00!! But that didn't matter to John. That showed how serious he was, and at
age 65 John is still passionate about learning and growing. I think that's one of
the reasons his books and talks are so good. They come not only from (now) 40
years of experience, but also from a fresh place of learning and relevancy.
In contrast, I've seen men and women receive an hour or so of someone's
time and show up ill-prepared. They had no written questions. They talked more
than listened and expressed very little gratitude. It was almost as if they had
some time to kill and thought that might be fun. When you do that to a busy
person, they will not give you a second meeting.
So, do you want a
mentor? Let me offer some good advice.
1. Be good at something
This might sound strange, but you need to be good at something
before you ask someone to help you be great at something. You can be good at
anything! That doesn't matter. You may want to be a great leader and your only
claim to fame is that you are really good at golf or giving a talk. Maybe you are
brilliant at math or a technological genius type. Here's the point, if you are
good at something, you have shown the passion and discipline to create the needed
potential to become great at what you really want. I don't want to discourage you,
but if you've just been hanging out and you've never worked hard at anything,
you're not ready for a mentor. Perhaps you're a young adult and your only claim to
fame is that you were an A student in college. Great! That's what I'm talking
about. Get good at something first.
2. Seek someone just a little ahead
A common mistake is to think: "If I'm going for a mentor, I'm
going right to the top and getting the best." I appreciate the sentiment, but you
are likely making a mistake. For example, if a pastor who serves in a church of
500 seeks a mentor who pastors a church of 5,000, the two of them clearly live in
two different worlds and they barely speak the same language. Yes, leadership
principles are leadership principles. That's true, but trust me on this, and this
is the key, you are much better off being mentored by someone who understands
where you are because they were there at one time, and maybe even not so long ago!
If you lead a church of 500 try to get a mentor who leads a church of 800 to
1,200. This is not a legalistic thing. Don't get hung up on the numbers, just go
with the idea. And of course, make the ask.
3. Think intentionally
Don't ask for lots of regularly scheduled meetings. You will
likely lose a potential mentor that way. Don't ask for monthly or even quarterly
connects. Go for a more intentionally organic approach. Here's what I mean. If you
can hang with a couple meetings (phone or in person) a year plus a few short
emails, you might be surprised by how quickly you get a yes. Intentional refers to
staying strategic and on purpose and the organic simply means to catch the
meetings when it works out naturally in both your schedules.
You don't need
lots of meetings, not if you really want to change and grow. Information requires
lots of meetings -- transformation requires only a few. If you connect with a good
mentor two or three times in a year, that is plenty. It will take you at least
that much time between conversations to really put to practice what was given to
you. Now let's do the math, if you have two or three mentors, you can see that
would be six to nine meetings a year – basically way too much.
Note #1: When it's a boss/employee relationship, of course you meet
much more often, but much of that is just "doing business." That's natural and
normal. It is unrealistic to think that's all mentoring. In fact, if it is, you
are likely into something closer to a counseling relationship than coaching and
Note #2: When it's a crisis situation, everything
changes. If it's a true crisis, your mentor will get that and quickly respond, and
that requires more time. Sometimes in those situations I encourage the one I'm
coaching to hire a consultant who can devote the needed time, and I remain as
chief encourager during that crisis time.
4. Work harder than your
Don't waste your mentor's time. Show up with well thought
through and relevant questions. Take notes. Work hard to practice what was
discussed, and the next time you talk, tell him or her what you have done.
A good mentor will always have some questions, a resource or two, and good
advice, but the mentoring is more your job than his/hers. You set the agenda and
come with it in writing. If your mentor asks you to do something, make the
necessary adjustments, but do it. This does not prevent healthy disagreements and
intense conversations, but you either want their advice or you don't. If you
don't, that's ok, but then stop taking their time and end the mentoring
relationship with respect and gratitude.
I've been blessed with five
mentors over the course of my life and I'm grateful! I'm sure that's part of the
reason I'm eager to coach as many as I can. I trust that you will also pass on
what is given to you.
"Evidence of a Vision"
"Young Leaders – Start Smart"
Where's A Good Mentor?
Iron Sharpens Iron