Mentors – why we need them and how do you find them?


Photo Credit: Bindaas Madhavi via Compfight

The day I turned forty, it was as though someone threw a switch – I suddenly became incredibly smart! The reason I know this is ‘coz that’s when I realized, what an absolute idiot I had been for a great part of my adult life. Since then, hard as it might be to imagine, I think I am growing smarter still, as I continue to unearth stuff that had been staring me in the face, but I had obviously chosen not to acknowledge let alone learn from it. But then again, as the old adage goes, “If youth knew or age could…” the world would be a different place. One of the reasons that I made it this far without constantly tripping myself, is because I was singularly lucky in having a series of incredible mentors, who coached me, encouraged me and where needed placed a firm boot on a rather well endowed portion of my rear!There’s a whole another series of posts required if I begin with my earliest mentors (my materal grandfather and paternal grandma) – so I will skip them in this one and stick with my professional mentors starting with the most recent ones. Before I wax eloquent, let’s step back and try to answer some basic questions.

access and
availability, no axe to grind and
real-world experience are the key criteria
for someone to be a good mentor

Who is a mentor? The dictionary, as always has something to say about this – “A wise and trusted guide and advisor” – in other words, someone you trust and knows more than you (if you are like me, nearly anyone else) can be a mentor. In my view, availability and access, no axe to grind and real-world experience are the key criteria for someone to be a good mentor. In hindsight, I have been surrounded by such folks.

What does a mentor do? A mentor often advices or cousels you. But there’s more to it than that. A lawyer advices or counsels you. For instance, she can tell you the pitfalls of doing a certain deal a certain way. However, while you may learn about your options and their consequences, you are not necessarily in a better position to make the right decision. A mentor focuses more on the HOW, than the what, you do something or get something done. He ideally teaches you and guides you while you learn something by doing. In many ways its apprenticeship by the hour or the minute! Any good manager of yours can tell you what options you have or the consequences of, confronting a critical but intransigent team member. Your mentor will show you how best to go about it, to achieve the desired result at the least emotional and business cost to all concerned!

A mentor focuses
more on the HOW, than the what,
you do something or get something done

Why do we need them? Simply put someone needs to keep us honest – hold up a mirror to us and not let us get away with taking the easy path. Advisors, experts and professionals can all augment and make up for any gaps in our competencies or domain knowledge – however most times we hire them for their services (inputs) but retain the prerogative of whether to act on them or not. A mentor need not be different – but a good one will be, in that they will ensure [a] that you act and [b] that you act in enlightened self interest – the greater good so to speak. There will be times, regardless of our job role or even in our personal lives when decisions will have to be made, and the people you’d usually consult themselves will be stakeholders in the decision. In such an instance you’d want to go to someone else whom you trust but is not a stakeholder. Of course finding such a mentor, unlike looking for the flashlights after the lights go out, is best done before you need them.

someone needs to keep us honest –
hold up a mirror to us and
not let us get away with taking the easy path

Mentors can be people who are already in your personal and professional lives. That way the trust and relationship already exists and if there is mutual respect, familiarity need not prevent the necessary candor for successful learning and growth. Chandrasekaran, the chairman at my first start up, despite having been a somewhat formal advisor in my previous stint at Sasken and subsequently becoming a good personal friend, served as one of my mentors. Whether handling things in my personal life (now you know who’s responsible for the mess! NOT!) or intransigent customers (I am sure you have never faced this!) and most importantly in learning and I hope, mastering cash flow management, Shekar was an invaluable mentor. Similarly my partner in crime, co-founder and CTO Baskar (who’d be embarrased if he read this not merely ‘coz he’s decade(s) younger than me) talked me through so many self doubts (what? I never have any) and showed me the true meaning of unflappable (I have it written down somewhere) that he has been one of my subtlest mentors yet.

Mentoring can happen in a nanosecond, as in when Mr. Raghavan our angel investor, told me “Go for it – only when you take risks you are going to make things happen and learn” as all of us were agonizing over entering the retail business. And it may happen over months or years, as I realized has happened with my dad and me. And any number of ways in between – the only definitive is that you will be a better person for it.

So stop reading this, recognize the people who you’ve already been mentored by, call ’em up and thank ’em. If you can’t think of any, what are you waiting for – go out and get yourself at least one.

3 thoughts on “Mentors – why we need them and how do you find them?

  1. Pingback: Discretion - a skill founders and CEOs need in spades | Design of Business

  2. As one who considers you a mentor, Thank you!
    ‘No axe to grind’ is interesting coz it is sometimes part of a job description. It is , for me – to mentor my juniors. Although I do that with all sincerity only for one. In your mind, are there qualities that you look for that makes one amenable for mentoring – good listeners, motivation probably? I sometimes feel attempts at mentoring is futile in some professional relationships. Any tips to handle those?


    • Meera, excellent question. As a parent of teens, this is a challenge I face everyday 🙂 Can we mentor the unwilling – I think this requires its own blog post. But in short, willingness or better yet desire to learn is a critical pre-requisite in my view. As you rightly point out it’s hard to learn, if you are not prepared to listen. You know the old adage, God gave us two ears but only one mouth 🙂 One lesson I learned from my own mentors is to agree to some specific action in each session – this will tell you whether the mentee is listening, motivated and willing to act. If twice they don’t follow up, you know it’s not working. I’d try one last time and you should be prepared to move on otherwise.


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