“If I hadn’t had mentors, I wouldn’t be here today. I’m a product of great mentoring, great coaching. Coaches or mentors are very important. They could be anyone–your husband, other family members, or your boss.” — Indra Nooyi
I remember two particularly inadvertent interventions that ended up having profound impact on the trajectory of my life. One of them is so small that I could easily have missed noticing it but thankfully, for reasons I can’t fathom, I paid attention at that time. Many years ago, in the first 8–10 years of my career, I was in an office meeting to discuss and remediate the step brotherly treatment meted out to the business unit that I was part of, when it came to items such as compensation benefits and employee promotions. I led a team within the unit and was particularly aggrieved. I was quite hot and angry in that meeting with the indifference that I perceived from the seniors (management and HR). After that meeting, my boss at that time took me aside and gave me a small piece of advice. He said that I was easy to get incited or ticked off and that does not bode well for me, for no one cares for words from an angry or bitter person even if those were to be wise words. This bit of serendipitous advice turned out to be tremendously useful to me. From then on, more often than not, I was able to catch myself autonomously going into an emotionally charged mode and stop myself.
The other example is building friendship with a new colleague at a new job in a new city. His thinking and way of life were fundamentally different from mine. This came into sharp display when our employer, Lehman Brothers, went bankrupt. His reaction was calm, cool and methodical. He never seemed to be perturbed with anything that he cannot control — no matter how adverse. He rarely gave specific advice to me but when he did, it was without exception very potent. I learnt a lot and continue to learn from him — just by observing his actions and on rare occasions, seeking his counsel.
These are two very different examples of mentoring. One active and one passive. One from a senior in a hierarchical set-up and one from a peer. The point here is that mentoring can happen in many different forms and contexts.
When I looked up their definitions, I came to understand that mentoring is more about actively and voluntarily seeking advice, suggestions, wisdom etc from someone, whereas, coaching is about taking help from an expert for specific purposes. For the purposes of this article, I will use “mentoring” and “coaching” interchangeably.
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” — Isaac Newton
Is there really a need for mentoring? I strongly believe mentoring can play a critical role in leapfrogging progress. While few lessons in life have to be learnt through their own experience, mentors can help in arriving at those lessons faster by helping you make sense of your experiences. On the other hand, not all lessons need to come from personal experience — mentors can help you avoid making unnecessary mistakes. For example, I believe that one must experience the power of compounding firsthand to truly understand how it works in practice and how significant its impact could be. Theoretical knowledge generally cannot make the understanding of compounding intuitive.
Most logical, technical knowledge — many times even if it is complicated, can be learnt by oneself or from a teacher. A teacher can teach a topic and help assess your understanding.
“If you cannot see where you are going, ask someone who has been there before.” — J Loren Norris
Mentors can be very useful in case of non-linear, experiential topics which typically tend to be complex in nature. Complex areas typically involve multiple interdependent variables. Human nature, career building, economics, stock markets, the human body (as regards to causes of diseases and their treatments), nature, high-throughput-low-latency technology systems are all examples of complex systems. Theoretical knowledge is necessary but nowhere sufficient to maneuver such systems. Personal experience is critical requirement. Because personal experience involves a significant amount of time and given that time is limited, mentoring can help significantly by accelerating learning and saving valuable time.
“Your mentors in life are important, choose them wisely”- Bill Walsh
How do I pick the right mentor? Mentors should be experienced and proficient in the subject area and charitable with knowledge. Not necessary that they be verbose or anything like that. So long as the expert is willing to share, whether in terse or verbose fashion, there is value to be had.
How to engage a mentor? No one method — so long as you able to access their practical wisdom, you are engaged. We have probably never had it as good as today in terms of accessing mentors. Many benevolent experts poured their hearts out in the books and articles they wrote and also in various podcasts. Critical study of these bodies of work can serve the purpose of gaining practical knowledge. However, nothing beats the value of an appropriate, real-life mentor who can be accessed, discussed with, or just plain spent time with.
The onus is always on you — the mentee — to extract value from mentoring. I have seen too many mentoring relationships fizzle away because mentee leaves it to the mentor to create value. Mentor will react and respond to the stimuli from the mentee. Mentees should anchor the mentoring sessions with right leading questions.
Mentor also gains disproportionately through mentoring but that’s a topic for another day.
“Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living — if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.” — Denzel Washington
In one form or another, mentoring has potential to play an outsized role in one’s progress. Mentors can clarify the finer points in specific subject areas, but their bigger value lies in inspiring you and guiding you through compounding matters such as health, wealth, relationships and vocation. Mentoring is a high leverage activity that helps you learn from other’s experiences and wisdom and thereby leapfrog in your progress.
Thanks for taking time to read this. In this newsletter, I share my learnings that could help you improve your decisions and make meaningful progress on your goals. I try to share stuff that I have personally experienced or experimented with. If you find this newsletter worthwhile and if you do not mind it, please do consider sharing it with others.
A bit on my background
I help people make better decisions.
I coach people on “Making Better Decisions”, “Financial Intuition” and “Building Great Careers”. I’m open to run sessions on these topics in institutions — this will help me create larger impact.
I’m also an Investment Advisor (RIA) registered with the Securities and the Exchange Board of India (SEBI). As an RIA, I analyze and prepare financial plans to help people achieve their financial goals.