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.