Why CEOs Need To Pay It Forward

business mentorOnly later in my career did I begin to understand what a mentor was and that I actually had one without knowing it.  His name was Jack, founder of a client company, a distinguished man in his mid-seventies, deep in life experiences and always willing to share.  From time to time I would walk into his office to get his view on a pending decision and he always would invite me to sit.  I would describe what was on my mind and he then would respond, almost never with a direct answer, almost always with a personal story.

Others who had the same experience became impatient, wanting a direct answer; I learned to sit and listen and always, when Jack had finished his story, I had found the ‘nugget’ in his message.

Some years later, I was in a time and a place where, quite by accident, I began to be viewed as a mentor and the joy I derive from that acquired role continues to this day.  At the time, I was serving in an executive role of a company that was ‘breaking out,’ on its way to becoming a market leader.  We had many young people on staff, still in the early stages of their careers, and remembering my own experiences with aloof occupants in the corner offices in my first few jobs I tried to be relaxed and interactive with them at every opportunity.

On one particular occasion a young man wandered into my office (the door was never closed) and we talked for about forty five minutes.  Where we ended is not where we started; he had come in with a routine business question and we ended with him asking me about job experiences when I was his age.  When we finished he asked…’can we do this again?’  Without hesitation I answered ‘yes;’ and so it began.

We met monthly, he shared the experience we had with his peers and some asked to do the same.  Quite by accident an informal mentor program was born.  I had only a few rules; you were welcome to participate if you reported to someone who reported to me, you had to come with questions and not expect me to lead and, our conversations could never be about your boss.

I fell into this opportunity to become a mentor and through it was able to begin sharing my own failures and successes and the many experiences gained from working with over 100 enterprises.  I grew into the role and gained as much or more than those who felt they gained from me.  Some said their ‘hair was on fire’ after we met and when they did, I knew I had added value.

For those of you who are or would be mentors I share with you what I have learned from the experience.

• Listen, don’t lead. The one you mentor must set the table.

• Be humble. Being a mentor is not a stage to feature your accomplishments.  In fact, it is the opposite, an opportunity to share your mistakes and what you learned from them.  Those you mentor will have ample opportunity to make their own.

• Be transparent in your responses and expect the same in return.

• Where you can, find the humor in what you share; the lessons you teach become more memorable.

• Know your boundaries; you’re not a social worker or a counselor. This is about helping individuals to be more successful by learning from your experiences.

• Above all, demand, respect and preserve confidentiality.

Lesson learned: pay it forward!  To share our experiences through mentoring provides a user friendly opportunity for others to learn from our failures and successes.  To be respected as a mentor is an honor not shared by many.

Read more: The Skills Of Being A Good Listener

Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.