Why CEOs Need Mentors -- They Accelerate Learning
I’m a firm believer in never settling for less: There is always room for improvement or new knowledge to gain. When I founded my company, Retention Science, I knew I still had much to learn. Now, years later, I’m an even bigger advocate for continual growth. As your company expands and matures, so will your team and so should you.
Serving as CEO, you have the opportunity and directive to nurture your team’s growth. But how do you grow yourself?
Be open to learning from any and all sources. For instance, my personal experiences drive me forward, while the stories of successful entrepreneurs like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos keep me motivated. Even more important, I learn something new every day from my team, both personally and professionally.
The other part of growing as leader boils down to what I consider essential to every CEO’s success: finding mentors. By definition, as CEO you head the company and there is no one to give you the same kind of guidance you provide your team on a daily basis. This is especially true when an organization (like my firm) has a flat company structure, offering opportunities for collaborative learning instead of just having someone with more experience share knowledge.
As important as collaborative learning is, mentors can provide unique insights that will be invaluable to a leader's growthr. This has certainly been true for me. One mentor who has had significant impact on my professional development is Ann Lewnes, chief marketing officer at Adobe Systems.
I was surprised at how approachable this industry veteran was and her willingness to take time from her busy schedule to meet with me. I checked in with her once every two months, asking for her advice on key issues I knew fell within her expertise.
She was so focused on helping me and generous with her knowledge that she rarely spoke about herself. I often directed the conversation back to her, so her stories could inspire me as well. She provided me much-needed perspective and guidance for the obstacles I encountered as my company started scaling larger.
When she first showed me her seat at Adobe, I learned that even high-level executives at her company sit in an open layout to foster open communication. I made sure my company's office was set up the same way.
My experience with Lewnes validated that mentors are crucial in helping entrepreneurs grow. Here are a few reasons why:
1. Having already “walked the walk.”
A mentors can provide a wealth of knowledge based on various business experiences. The best mentors have successfully navigated the same industry as the entrepreneur and can provide insight on the obstacles faced by a new leader.
A solid mentor might not automatically have all the answers but will know the questions to ask or a direction to guide you in. In speaking with you, he or she will also try to understand where you’re coming from, which can make all the difference.
2. Offering a sounding board.
By definition, the best mentors are there to help, which means they have no hidden agendas. Once you build up a strong relationship with such a mentor, you have a rare opportunity to freely seek professional advice, without worrying about conflicts of interest or misplaced trust. Additionally, the mentor can as a neutral party provide candid feedback on your plans or strategies and help you make your decisions with confidence.
3. Offering networks to leverage.
Even if a mentor can’t help you on a certain issue, chances are he or she knows someone who can. This person's networks and resources are likely much more extensive than your own and a mentor’s referral or introduction carries more weight than a business card at a networking event. Building a strong relationship with amentor will broaden your network exponentially.
4. Providing perspective and vision.
Part of your job as CEO is to focus on the big picture, but it can be difficult to maintain perspective at a time of stress. A relatively minor setback can seem like an urgent crisis, whereas smaller problems left unhandled can have negative long-term effects on your business. A mentor can help you navigate through both types of circumstances by providing a fresh pair of eyes to evaluate and assess the situation and give you a nudge or two when necessary.
5. Focusing on the person not just the company.
Entrepreneurs clearly have a lot at stake when it comes to their ventures. Everyone is looking at you to lead, and it’s not uncommon for CEOs to lose themselves as they put the company’s best interests first. A mentor can help you take a step back and offer a chance to focus on you as an individual, which is essential for maintaining your sanity and your company's successful growth.
I consider myself very lucky to be able to call Ann Lewnes a mentor. She is a constant reminder that the world’s most successful executives are those who stay grounded and humble and share their knowledge and experiences. Successful and busy as she is, she takes the time to mentor me -- and I will remember to one day pay it forward.
Jerry Jao is the CEO and co-founder of Retention Science, a leader and innovator in retention marketing. Prior to his founding of two other marketing software companies, he worked at he worked at Morgan Stanley, KPMG Advisory and Clear Channel Communications. He is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and Yale School of Management.