Free Advice From a Mentor

(Note: When I wrote this early in my blog’s history, when I was a senior executive for a Fortune 150 financial services firm. Now with the added perspective of an entrepreneur and consultant, I find the words truer than ever.)

I have mentored dozens of young professionals over the years, and even though each situation is unique, I always end up giving these three pieces of advice. It’s not like I planned it all out, or even wrote it out before now, but here they are:

  1. There is no secret handshake
  2. Focus on getting better, not getting credentials
  3. It all starts with you

There is no secret handshake

The CEO of a venture-backed technology company whom I know well once asked me: “Do you ever get the feeling that when someone comes to you for career advice, what they’re really looking for is the secret handshake?” 

Yes, I have gotten that feeling.

My best mentoring relationships have involved mentees who truly want to improve their performance, learn new skills, take on more responsibility or just learn more about what a potential career path might look like for them.

The best way to ensure that a mentoring relationship with me is short (and not particularly rewarding for either of us) is to mistake it as an opportunity to simply learn the secret handshake.

Do you really think I’ll hire you or connect you with someone merely because you want more money or a better title?

Put some clothes on that naked ambition, you’ll catch a cold.

Focus on getting better, not getting credentials

I often get questions like “Should I get an MBA (or any one of the alphabet soup of certifications in the financial industry: CFA, CFP®, CIMA, CTFA, etc.)?”

My consistent answer to all who ask is that if you want to learn more about that particular area and want to study it deeper, go for it. I’m a big believer of continuous learning, and earlier in my career I worked to get an MBA and put a few initials after my own name.

On the other hand, if you think that simply tacking those initials after your name will open a whole new world for you, you will probably be disappointed.

I still remember a soon-to-be-freshly-minted MBA who wanted to ‘remind’ me that he would have this very important graduate degree by the time of his next performance review, and that he hoped that would qualify him for a promotion.

I ‘reminded’ him that he was still the same person with the same level of performance, so probably not.

It all starts with you

This is kind of a two-for-one. First, I mean that before you start on any exploration of future paths, you need to understand your strengths, your passions, what gives you energy and what saps you dry.

I also mean that the whole process of working with a mentor isn’t a passive activity of absorbing second-hand knowledge through osmosis.

I was very proud and excited when my company asked me a few years ago to participate in the pilot of a program called MentorConnect, kind of an internal match.com to put mentors and mentees together based on specific skills and experiences.

I learned to start by asking mentees to share any relevant standardized test results they may have taken recently (Meyers-Briggs, PDI, StrengthsFinder, DiSC, etc.), and if they didn’t have any, I had them start with StrengthsFinder 2.0. Not only did this help give the mentee and me a logical starting place, it helped to quickly identify those who were only looking for the secret handshake. Those types often would not do the work.

I also recall the bright young assistant who was referred to me by her boss for some career advice a few years ago. She wasn’t sure what she wanted, but she was sure she should be higher in the organization by now. I took her to lunch, and we talked for an hour and a half. I gave her a couple of books to read for our subsequent meetings. I must have followed up three of four times when I ran into her, but she hadn’t quite found the time to even buy the books, let alone read them.

I guess I wasn’t completely surprised when she dropped by a couple of months later to let me know she was quitting the firm.

She was going to work on her MBA.

And no doubt continue her quest for that elusive secret handshake.

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