Great mentors and unicorns.

Posted by

Phil McSweeney


Some tips on what to do if you can’t find one – a great mentor that is!

Precious, fleeting, never seen in captivity – they’re both a rare thing. (Where do you look for unicorns anyway?) 

You’ve probably read posts or blogs about the qualities of a great mentor and how to choose one. So have I and, to be honest, most of them make me laugh. I’ve got a pretty optimistic view of us humans, we’re mostly well-meaning and all that, but most advice appears to suggests you should be looking for a truly legendary being with unbelievable superpowers. You know the stuff I mean – patience of a saint, eternally enthusiastic, has an answer for every problem, never misses a personal goal, knows everyone of any relevance, respected by the universe, etc.

I’m a mentor myself, I’ve met a lot of other mentors, and here’s the bad news. These mythical mentors are from Greek mythology; they exist in some fictitious management-speak universe. Most people haven’t read every major leadership textbook, nor do they excel at solving every real-world work problem. Unlike the Fantastic Four we mentors have not been given superhuman powers and abilities by exposure to cosmic rays during an experimental space flight. We are humans like you, just with more experience. Speaking for myself I’m really good at some things and much less good at others. I know my weaknesses, I don’t always make the best decisions; occasionally I get irritated. Some things are Kryptonite to me – yes, emotion often overpowers reason. I’ve had my own business ideas that I’ve regretted. On one flight of fancy I thought I could make a trailer that you could fold up and put in the car boot. A brilliant concept, I thought. I spent too much on having a prototype made – the wreckage is still in my garage.

If I have any special gift as a mentor it’s a mindset. It’s about challenge, execution and objectivity. 

When I’m asked to mentor, I ask probing questions. Here’s a favourite – ‘What are you truly trying to achieve?’ It has so many sub-questions in it. Truly – are you being true to yourself, authentic in what you are pursuing? Trying – how are you trying, what are you trying, what have you done already, where has it got you to, what could you do better? Achieve – tell me about your purpose, your consuming interest, your vision, your timescale. I don’t want to ask you how I can help till I know most of that – because I want you to have considered how to help yourself first. When I know what you’re finding really difficult then I’ll know if I can be of any use to you.

I’m a fan of disciplined execution – read what Stephen Covey has to say about it. I advise people to choose just a few wildly-important goals to deliver on, and develop processes to make sure they can focus on only those. There’s an old Russian proverb I like about the futility of chasing more than one rabbit. 

Staying objective is critical too. That means staying grounded, not letting my feelings or your issues cloud my judgement, and giving you impartial advice. 

So – if you want the perfect mentor then, by all means, go on a unicorn hunt. Good luck. If you can’t find one then let me suggest some other things you might try. For you it’s all about who you can learn from. Ask someone who’s had some success in life, and how that happened. Then balance that up by asking people who’ve had ideas that failed. What are their lessons? Ask people who you think you’ll get on with OK. Some shared values or worldview is probably important. Ask people who aren’t calling themselves a mentor – they might have invaluable advice, and ‘mentor’ isn’t yet a protected profession. Ask people that you believe are thinkers, who are analytical and don’t rush to quick decisions. Ask people outside your sector – if they can understand the complexity of what you do then they could be bright people with good ideas. Get some diversity of view. Ask people with listening skills, with empathy. Ask several people at once, and try and make sense of different opinions by putting those to other people. You don’t have to ration mentoring advice. Ask yourself – have you been in similar situations before? What worked? Trust your own judgement.

If you can find the industry expert with all the qualities you want you’ll be very lucky. If not, never mind, there are plenty of other good people out there worth listening to. Just keep asking!