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Why I Wish I Had a Mentor When I Started My Company

Ian Bremmer, Ph.D

(LinkedIn Pulse) – I’ve had a number of mentors over my career, all of whom helped me in different ways. The late great James Chace taught me how to properly frame an argument. Bob Conquest taught me how to research and deliver publishable prose. Ray Taras, my college professor, taught me how to do fieldwork under some pretty challenging conditions (in my case, it was Ukraine right after independence). Jim Todd, another beloved professor of mine, taught me how to focus on analysis and recognize bias for what it really was.

But I didn’t have a mentor when I started my company. In retrospect, that probably wasn’t the smartest move — I just didn’t know anyone with business experience back then. So I’m living proof that you don’t always need a mentor to be successful. But they sure do make a difference.

Mentors can help in different ways, but they, and my experiences with them, have certain things in common. Here’s why they’re so valuable.

1) Stupid mistakes. You’re going to make them, especially when you start out, and you shouldn’t be discouraged by that. If you don’t make mistakes, especially stupid ones, you’ll never learn anything. But a mentor will help you minimize the most damaging of those mistakes and help you see clear lessons from them. A mentor has been in your position and learned the hard way how best to move forward. Mistakes have taught him or her, and they can teach you too. Your mentor also knows what matters and what doesn’t. That’s incredibly important, because you have a finite amount of energy, and you need to prioritize. When you start out, you’ll want to do everything, tick all the boxes. Of course, you can’t. You need to learn which skills matter and focus on sharpening those. A mentor will help you do that.

2) Opening doors. Cold calling almost never works, unless you’re unbelievably lucky. I wasn’t, and you probably won’t be either. A mentor can introduce you to the right people and tell you why exactly you need to know that person. The mentor can tell you who is worth trusting and who isn’t. Knowing who to trust requires experience, which you don’t have yet. He/she can also help you understand where you need connections to succeed and where you’re better off going it alone. You won’t believe how much time and effort that will save you.

3) Values. This is by far the most important thing a mentor can help you develop. If you’re ambitious, your work will be stressful. There will be times when you work too hard, you become too focused on a single goal or on making ends meet. You’ll be tired, and it’s natural that you’ll look for short cuts. A mentor will remind you what’s important and what lasts, because he/she cares about your conscience and wants to make you a better as well as stronger and more successful human being. Your mentor has the longer view and can show it to you. These things may not be celebrated as part of your success, but they will matter to you and the people whose opinions you should respect.

All three of these things are important, so try to find a mentor who cares about all three. That’s not always possible, obviously. But when you can, find a mentor who takes a holistic approach to your development. You’ll thank them for it.

Finally, never forget that having a mentor is a two-way street. The traits you seek in a mentor are often the same traits that they seek in a mentee. Be thoughtful, be supportive. Put effort into the things that matter and show that you’re fully engaged and genuinely grateful. Be loyal. It’s the best way to demonstrate that you value what you’ve been given. Your mentor deserves it, and so do you.

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