Does a Mentor have to Breathe?


To most of us, mentors are people of experience and knowledge who help the less experienced advance their careers and/or their education. There are plenty of well-known examples throughout history; Aristotle mentored Alexander the Great, Laurence Olivier mentored Anthony Hopkins and Freddy Laker mentored Richard Branson.

In the early days of my business career, I was lucky to work under two gentlemen who introduced me to several critical success factors that guided my journey from Brand Manager to CEO. One of my mentors was brilliantly creative, the other skillfully strategic. But when I finally reached the corner office, I was alone, and rather than join a Presidents’ forum such as YPO, I turned to the periodicals of America’s best business schools. At the risk of this blog appearing as an advertorial for Harvard, I’ll gladly admit that Harvard Business Review was my favorite management resource. Here are the benefits I garnered from years of prolific reading from the corner office:

1. Strategy. The latest thinking from the great strategists of the era – Michael Porter, Henry Ginsberg, Rosabeth Kanter, John Kotter. By plotting our brands and businesses within HBR’s models, I was able to pin-point weaknesses and bring clarity to opportunities. Importantly, the implications and action steps became an ‘easy sell’ to my management team.

2. Human Resources. I came up through marketing; quite honestly, during my years in that function I did not give much thought to HR. But shortly after ascending to the corporate throne, people and culture became my mantra.

3. Dispute Resolution. Each HBR issue included the views of guest contributors who tackled sticky, hyopethical scenarios posed by the editor. These contributors looked at situations differently, and their unique approach broadened my horizon.

4. Perennial Wisdom. I scribed notes of my favorite articles and had my secretary type them – years later referring to these notes in my capacity as a consultant. A client in need of innovation? “Yep, I can help with that,” I’d say. And sure enough, bright folks such as Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad joined me as silent colleagues.

5. A Mentor Doesn’t Have to be a Person. By all means interact with a live mentor, but do not discount the value of a disciplined approach to life-long learning from indirect experts. Their writings can be an invaluable management resource to help solve problems and unleash opportunities.

There are 7 comments.

  1. Inactive

    I had several mentors, all breathing but sadly no longer so, during the course of my career. Now I am in the corner office, delaying retirement as long as possible, mentoring others. I think books are a poor substitute for breathing mentors, the Internet even less so – but there lies the future.

    • #1
    • June 2, 2012 at 8:51 am
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  2. Inactive

    Three authors have been very influential to me as silent mentors:

    Peter Drucker

    Intelligence, imagination, and knowledge may all be wasted in an executive job without the acquired habits of mind that mold them into results.

    Henry Boettinger

    “I’m greatly impressed with Henry Boettinger’s book. I think that it goes way beyond its title and is a first-class, highly original and highly practical, treatise both on how one thinks and how one presents thinking. I would consider it the first truly modern searching essay on rhetoric – in the classical meaning of the term – in the last three or four hundred years.” – Peter Drucker

    A.G. Sertillanges, O.P.

    “Do you want to do intellectual work?” He follows with the prescription: “Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will of renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worth while.”

    • #2
    • June 2, 2012 at 11:00 am
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  3. Listener

    People and culture are too important to be left to HR. Line managers — from the CEO down — make it happen. HR is an inert function unless it’s energized from the c-suite.

    • #3
    • June 3, 2012 at 1:28 am
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  4. Member

    I have my Mentor who breathes, but I have also known many who stopped breathing long ago: Sun-Tzu, Lao-Tzu, Machiavelli. And then there was this fellow named Jesus. To deny the power of the written word to convey wisdom is to deny oneself the highest and oldest truths.

    • #4
    • June 3, 2012 at 1:36 am
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  5. Contributor
    John Bell Post author
    Fricosis Guy: People and culture are too important to be left to HR. Line managers — from the CEO down — make it happen. HR is an inert function unless it’s energized from the c-suite. · 2 hours ago

    Yep. Without the C-Suite, HR is constrained as a culture agent. Perhaps it is time to bring HR into the C-Suite. No better training for this than line management experience along the way.

    • #5
    • June 3, 2012 at 3:49 am
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  6. Member

    It is true HR departments have become insular unthinking entities and appear to have unlimited control. Perhaps not the best of choices.

    That aside. Does a Mentor need the Breathe. Those that have learned from same will carry on the legacy and verstility of thought and purpose, come what may.

    Perhaps that is a far too simple a concept. It remains a Truth.


    • #6
    • June 3, 2012 at 4:24 am
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  7. Member

    Since I am a contrarian.

    Yes, a mentor does need to be breathing. The key difference between a mentor and other forms of people who influence an individual is the existence of real time or near real time feedback. A human touch and relationship necessary.

    We are talking about the difference between an elderly sea captain coaching you through the stormy rocky channel, and a map. At some point you become the elderly sea captain, and you have to help the new guys through the channel.

    No amount of books on military duties and leadership will ever replace ol’ sarge.

    • #7
    • June 5, 2012 at 5:10 am
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