Throughout our lives we’re often reminded of the importance of mentors and how they can influence our success. When asked who our greatest mentors are, we think about those who had the most significant impact on our success — parents, relatives, professors and teachers, coaches or a favorite manager.
Without a doubt, these are the people who have played a significant role in helping us get where we are today, but our mentoring relationships with them usually come about by nature and necessity. But what about the “accidental mentors” in our lives?
I was speaking at a local college recently and someone asked me who my best business mentor was. It took me a while to answer, but I reflected on meeting with someone who had a tremendous influence on me, even though we’ve only talked a total of 20 minutes.
A number of years ago, when I had just decided to enter the world of entrepreneurship and start the first of our (giving the utmost credit to my partners) companies, I began networking to spread the word about this great new company we were about to launch. I shared this earth-shattering narrative with many friends, relatives and colleagues with resoundingly positive response. “That sounds terrific!” and “You’re going to do great!” was the feedback I got, but then it was time to share my vision with people beyond my circle of friends and acquaintances.
I began researching successful entrepreneurs in the area and connected with a gentleman who had started many companies, held multiple degrees from Harvard, and seemed like someone I clearly wanted to know. After emailing back and forth we decided to meet for coffee. A couple of accomplished professionals putting their heads together. Or so I thought.
When we sat down, it soon became clear that he had different ideas and one of us knew a little more than the other. “What do you want to accomplish today?” This was the first question he asked as he sat down, ignoring my outstretched hand. After explaining to him that I was starting a business and… he cut me off saying, “I know this. I read your email. What do you want from me?” Although I’m 6 feet 6 inches tall, I began feeling smaller than the coffee mug I was drinking from as he began asking questions about my business plan and how I planned to become successful. “What are your start-up costs? What is your specific budget? What is your five-year plan? What is your cost of client acquisition? What is your exit strategy?”
The questions just kept coming and, even though I had the answers, I was completely unprepared to verbally package it into anything resembling an intelligent thought. Finally, as I was fumbling through yet another unsatisfactory answer to a question, he put his hand up, stopping me and closed his eyes. “Did you quit your job already?” he asked. I had indeed, which prompted him to stand up, advise me to beg for my job back and tell me that I should prepare to get slaughtered. As he was walked away from the table my cellphone rang with my wife excitedly asking how my big meeting went.
Telling the story now I can laugh, but the pain and distress of the hours that followed were very real. While this gentleman wasn’t the nicest person I’ve encountered, the lessons he taught me are incredibly powerful and have influenced many of my accomplishments since.
Despite the fact I had thought about the questions he brought up, and even had good answers, I knowingly walked into an important meeting completely unprepared. The raw horror of unexpectedly being made to feel unintelligent, inferior, uncalculated and destined for failure was a feeling I swore I would never expose myself to again. As nice as it would have been for him to grab me around the neck, ruffle my hair, and tell me I was going to be great, he was honest with me. He made it brutally clear that these were things that big boys need to know, package and articulate.
I’m guessing he didn’t wake up that day saying, “I’m going to mentor this guy to the top,” nor is it likely he’s given the conversation another thought since he left the parking lot, but he immediately became an accidental mentor for whom I’m exceedingly grateful and appreciative.
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