Walking boldly through my front door, greeted by my wife and an overly excited chocolate lab, I could not have expected a phone call that would send me back to work long past dinner.
20 minutes earlier, tired of working on a demanding project and antsy to leave the office, I composed a diplomatic email to our customer declaring our companies’ inability to finish their project. This project, according to my "expert" 22-year old opinion, was technically impossible. Our businesses weren't a good fit. My email said so.
Confident that I had handled this situation better than anyone, I clicked send and threw on my coat while listening for the swoosh of the email, confirming it was gone.
That email was a mistake. That email nearly lost us our largest customer for the entire year. The problem was, I had no idea.
It took a mentor to tell me why and help find a way to patch up my blunder (more on this later).
The Most Successful Leaders Have Mentors
In my entire career, I can count on one hand the number of times I've heard the word ‘mentor” used seriously. It seems antiquated; a practice reserved for the Renaissance-era painters and architects.
But the most successful business leaders of this world, the ones who achieve incredible success, did so with the help of others. Before they earned their success, they learned from the masters of their time. They were mentored until they had turned the best lessons from someone more skilled than themselves into their own.
Experience is the Mother of All Learning
Mentors take on different shapes and sizes. Mine was first a boss turned co-worker turned friend. Others are paid advisors; business coaches of sorts.
Whatever their form, a good mentor is concerned with one thing: sharing their experiences for your continued learning and growth.
I've written before that experience is the mother of all learning. Experience teaches us in a primal, direct way that no other type of learning can reproduce. It engages all of our senses, driving home new information with remarkable efficiency.
Unfortunately, when pursuing knowledge through professional development, self-study, or university courses, experience can be the most difficult type of learning to arrange. As small business owners, even small setbacks can lead to failure.
We can’t afford to misstep. We can’t afford to lose time.
Which lead us to the questions: What have successful small business owners do to prevent catastrophic company failure? How did they learn what they need to learn to succeed? Where did they find the valuable experiences they couldn’t (or didn’t have time to) obtain on their own?
Yep. You guessed it. They sought out mentors.
Even the late Steve Jobs, tech genius and widely renowned innovator of the century drew his inspiration from many figures he considered mentors. The complete list is one only Jobs himself knew, though many of his mentors are listed here. We may think and talk about Steve Jobs today as a lone genius, but Jobs listened to the advice and wisdom of many others, incorporating that advice into his character, his decisions, and Apple, Inc.
Don’t Go It Alone
To put it plainly, we can’t be great business owners on our own. We must continually seek knowledge through experience… and to save time and prevent mistakes, we should do so through mentors.
Mentors can show us what we can’t see, share experiences we haven’t had, and build us into better versions of our current self. Mentors can be a sounding board for sensitive topics you can’t share with your team. Mentors can be empathetic to your problems and concerns, providing support when you would otherwise feel alone.
But most importantly, mentors challenge us, push us, and provide insight that friends and family can’t objectively offer. They help us focus and prioritize, two of the most important things a small business owner (with limited time and an abundance of tasks) can do.
Eventually, great business owners become mentors themselves, going on to help a younger generation, building up future entrepreneurs and business owners to live out passions of their own. From there, the cycle will continue, driving learning and experiences, knowledge and growth for generations to come.
Deep Impressions from a Mentor
The deepest impressions affecting my career were left by a mentor. That phone call I'd received was from one such mentor.
Having sent my poorly thought-out email to our customer in the haste of starting my weekend, I'd neglected the bigger picture. I failed to see that our business existed to help people, not for our customer to help me.
Was I frustrated to be forced back into work on a Friday night? You’d better believe it.
But, despite my frustration, I eventually realized that my mentor taught me three valuable lessons: 1) why I was wrong, 2) how I could fix it, and 3) the importance of never repeating that mistake again.
Since that day I remember the words of my mentor as vividly as if they were just yesterday:
“I know what you were trying to do with that email; you were trying to get rid of [this difficult customer] and go home. But you forgot why we are here, at this company, working day and night. Why are we here Mike? We’re here to help people, and we’re here to create business. I’m sorry to say, you need to go back to the office and call the customer to make sure we’re doing both.”
Tough love, I know.
But I could have never taught myself that lesson. It took a mentor to do so. And though it took time to realize—other people in my life who had mastered their craft and taken it upon themselves to mentor me—they have made me a happier, more effective, more productive, more successful business owner.
Mentors taught me valuable lessons and gave me experiences that would have taken years to find on my own. They can do the same for you.
Find a Mentor, Be a Mentor
With these stories in mind, ask yourself one simple question: Do you know everything there is to know about your profession, about your team, about your customers, and about yourself?
If the answer is “no” (and if it isn’t, you're fooling yourself), start thinking about people in your life who have mastered the knowledge you strive to attain.
These are people you should reach out to. Consider them mentors. Ask them to be your mentor. Seek their advice and feedback on your decisions.
Over time you will begin to appreciate their perspective and guidance in your life.
If no such person comes to mind, look to support organizations such as Vistage who organize paid mastermind and executive mentorship groups, find independent coaches, or attend business networking events and personally connect with someone who has complimentary skills and experiences.
Still not convinced you need a mentor? Read this: 10 Reasons Why a Mentor is a Must
If you’re not sure what to look for in a mentor, here’s a decent checklist that will take less than 30 seconds to review: Checklist for Finding a Small Business Mentor
And finally, if you’re ready to ask someone to be your mentor, read this: How to Ask Someone to Be Your Mentor
PS. Seth and I have built Modern da Vinci to help you (and other small business owners) build the business you’ve always envisioned with purpose and speed. Reach out to us and let us know how we can help you achieve your goals.
About the Author
CO-FOUNDER | TECHNOLOGY, PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT, MARKETING, AND SALES
Michael Mehlberg helps small businesses owners achieve their goals and live their passion. His approach to technology, corporate strategy, product development, marketing, and sales is both practical and highly effective, and has helped multiple small businesses grow into the company their owners envisioned. Reach out by emailing him at email@example.com or learn more on our About page.