5 Secrets to Getting a Mentor Relationship Right

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5 Secrets to Getting a Mentor Relationship Right

Keith Krach’s mentees share their wisdom on getting the most out of mentorship.
There’s no better catalyst for building transformational leaders than mentor relationships–if they’re done right. I’ve asked a few of the stars I’ve mentored over the years to share their words of wisdom on getting mentorship right–from the mentee’s perspective. If you’re looking for a mentor, or thinking about entering a mentor relationship, these are some great ideas you should consider before taking the plunge. If you already have a mentor, remember these tips:
#1 It’s about personal transformation, not transactional favors.
I’ve heard some prominent critics of mentorship tell young entrepreneurs to stop whining, asking mentors for answers to questions they should get for themselves. I agree that mentors shouldn’t be shortcuts to industry knowledge for lazy entrepreneurs. But this idea of mentorship is all wrong. Mentorship is about personal growth, not industry knowledge. If you can Google it, it’s not a question for a mentor. Another sure way to ruin a mentor relationship is to ask for a job, a raise, or some other special treatment.
Michael Arrieta, my former chief of staff, now the youngest-ever VP at DocuSign, responsible for Telecom, Media and Utilities, and co-founder of New Story Charity, says, “In the ideal mentor relationship, you’re friends first, and professionals second. You need to agree to have a relationship that’s built on trust, where both of your true intentions are just to humbly serve one another.” Marc Carlson is a mentee who has turned out to be my partner in building six companies. According to Marc, “Mentoring is more like life coaching than talking about how you get through a project. It’s just a true desire to help another person through the twists and turns of life and a career.”
#2 It’s about the failures, not just the successes.
They may be harder to talk about, but I find that mistakes and failures are more valuable to learn from than successes. My mentees and I have had a lot of discussions about some painful missteps I’ve made in hiring. For example, I remember what a terrible feeling it was when I realized I had promoted the wrong CEO for Ariba after just a few weeks. I had to “get back in the saddle” after his first three months on the job. Talk about a screw up on my part! But I learned some very important lessons, and learning by OPE (Other People’s Experiences), especially by your mentor’s mistakes, my mentees got a shortcut to these lessons as well.
Alexandra Wikol, a great sales leader at DocuSign, has been a mentee of mine for years. Alex says, “Seeing how a mentor reacts to a mistake can be really valuable. It’s helped me to have the courage to do the same thing. See the mistake, make the pivot, and get through it quickly.”
#3 It’s about the questions, not the answers.
The real value of mentorship is in the personal insights and intimate lessons it has to offer. It’s about discovering your blind spots. Mike Cipolla, another former chief of staff and now VP of New Accounts at DocuSign, says, “Great mentors are able to ask questions that you might not have considered. My mentor relationships have helped me discover that I’m often held back by my own self-limiting thoughts. That’s enabled me to recognize when I’m thinking that way, put those thoughts aside, and just shoot for the moon.”
Alex Wikol says, “Good questions from mentors have definitely helped me to identify my blind spots. One great example is that I used to see business as a kind of ruthless, cut-throat environment where no one was to be trusted. I’m still careful, but I don’t see it that way anymore. For me, business is about trust now–not suspicion.”
#4 It’s about give and take, not take, take, take.
When I was CEO at Ariba, just after I had taken the company public, one of my board members suggested that I should seek out Cisco CEO, John Chambers, as a mentor. I didn’t think a leader of his stature would have the time to talk with me. But we did get together, and John graciously offered to be a mentor. Over time, our relationship evolved into a true friendship, and there was much more give and take. Eventually we began to seek each other’s advice on many issues.
Marc Carlson, who started as a mentee, has become a real accountability brother to me. I’m convinced I learn more from my mentees than they learn from me. They all think I’m joking when I say it, but it’s true. It’s an example of what I call a 60-60 relationship. A sign of a mentor relationship moving to the next level is when your mentor turns to you as a brainstorming partner on a critical issue, or looks for your perspective on a problem, issue or opportunity. This is what mentorship really should be.
#5 It’s about multiple mentors, not finding the perfect one.
Hiro Rodriguez, my current chief of staff, says, “The ideal mentor isn’t one person. It’s many people.” No one is good at everything. So instead of trying to find a perfect mentor, I tell my mentees to create what I call a Hybrid Mentor Matrix to help them match mentors to the issues they need guidance on.
Put together a grid with a mentor for each column, and a different leadership characteristic for each row. For each mentor, mark the issues or characteristics they’re best at. Now you have a good idea of who to talk with about what. My matrix has a lot of names on it.
I mentioned earlier that Mike Cipolla was my chief of staff when I was CEO at DocuSign. When I found my successor, our new CEO, Dan Springer, Mike became his chief of staff. I told him, “Celebrate the opportunity to have another mentor. You’ll see that we have different styles, approaches and skills. So take the best from both of us.” Alex Wikol says, “Keith is a great mentor, but with women rising in the workplace, it’s sometimes hard to navigate, especially as a female. For me as a woman, having a high-powered female to talk with is really crucial.”
Mentorship is the catalyst for developing future transformational leaders
As a society, today we face a lot of big challenges–accelerating technological change and disruption, major stressors to democratic institutions and freedoms, environmental challenges, and much more. I believe now more than ever we need not just leaders, but principled, transformational leaders, who can challenge the status quo, and mobilize and empower people to achieve noble causes that will have profound, far-reaching impacts. The best way to build this kind of leadership? Mentorship–done right.