My mentor, John Maxwell, has written and spoken about being mentored by the great coach John Wooden among others. I recently received a question by email asking, “How does one go about getting the greatest NCAA coach (John Wooden) as a mentor?
"Did he (Maxwell) just ask for regular meetings and what does mentorship look like?”
I will admit that getting John Wooden as a coach is an extraordinary circumstance involving an extraordinary leader. But on the other hand, John Maxwell didn’t start there.
It was only after nearly 30 years of successful leadership that John was able to connect with Coach Wooden. It was John’s desire to grow and his great passion to add value to people’s lives that made the difference. The fact that John is a tremendous student is also a very significant part of the story.
Over the years I’ve wondered which is more important—to have a great mentor or to be a great student? The easy answer is both. But more and more, I think the secret is in being a great student. You can have the most brilliant mentor in the world, even a famous one, but if you aren’t ready to pay the price, dig in, learn and change, it won’t matter.
I love John’s early stories about offering to pay $100 for an hour of someone’s time just to ask questions and learn. Back then, $100 might as well have been $1,000! But that didn’t matter to John. That showed how serious he was, and at age 65, John is still passionate about learning and growing. I think that’s one of the reasons his books and talks are so good. They come not only from (now) 40 years of experience, but also from a fresh place of learning and relevancy.
In contrast, I’ve seen men and women receive an hour or so of someone’s time and show up ill-prepared. They had no written questions. They talked more than listened and expressed very little gratitude. It was almost as if they had some time to kill and thought that might be fun. When you do that to a busy person, they will not give you a second meeting.
So, do you want a mentor? Let me offer some good advice.
1. Be good at something first. This might sound strange, but you need to be good at something before you ask someone to help you be great at something. You can be good at anything! That doesn’t matter. You may want to be a great leader and your only claim to fame is that you are really good at golf or giving a talk. Maybe you are brilliant at math or a technological genius type. Here’s the point: If you are good at something, you have shown the passion and discipline to create the needed potential to become great at what you really want. I don’t want to discourage you, but if you’ve just been hanging out and you’ve never worked hard at anything, you’re not ready for a mentor. Perhaps you’re a young adult and your only claim to fame is that you were an A student in college. Great! That’s what I’m talking about. Get good at something first.
2. Seek someone just a little ahead of you. A common mistake is to think, “If I’m going for a mentor, I’m going right to the top and getting the best.” I appreciate the sentiment, but you are likely making a mistake. For example, if a pastor who serves in a church of 500 seeks a mentor who pastors a church of 5,000, the two of them clearly live in two different worlds and they barely speak the same language. Yes, leadership principles are leadership principles. That’s true, but trust me on this, and this is the key: You are much better off being mentored by someone who understands where you are because they were there at one time, and maybe even not so long ago! If you lead a church of 500, try to get a mentor who leads a church of 800 to 1,200. This is not a legalistic thing. Don’t get hung up on the numbers; just go with the idea. And of course, make the ask.
3. Think intentionally organic. Don’t ask for lots of regularly scheduled meetings. You will likely lose a potential mentor that way. Don’t ask for monthly or even quarterly connects. Go for a more intentionally organic approach. Here’s what I mean. If you can hang with a couple meetings (phone or in person) a year plus a few short emails, you might be surprised by how quickly you get a yes. Intentional refers to staying strategic and on purpose, and the organic simply means to catch the meetings when it works out naturally in both your schedules.
You don’t need lots of meetings, not if you really want to change and grow. Information requires lots of meetings—transformation requires only a few. If you connect with a good mentor two or three times in a year, that is plenty. It will take you at least that much time between conversations to really put to practice what was given to you. Now let’s do the math. If you have two or three mentors, you can see that would be six to nine meetings a year—basically way too much.
Note No. 1: When it’s a boss/employee relationship, of course you meet much more often, but much of that is just “doing business.” That’s natural and normal. It is unrealistic to think that’s all mentoring. In fact, if it is, you are likely into something closer to a counseling relationship than coaching and mentoring.
Note No. 2: When it’s a crisis situation, everything changes. If it’s a true crisis, your mentor will get that and quickly respond, and that requires more time. Sometimes in those situations I encourage the one I’m coaching to hire a consultant who can devote the needed time, and I remain as chief encourager during that crisis time.
4. Work harder than your mentor. Don’t waste your mentor’s time. Show up with well-thought-through and relevant questions. Take notes. Work hard to practice what was discussed, and the next time you talk, tell him or her what you have done.
A good mentor will always have some questions, a resource or two, and good advice, but the mentoring is more your job than his/hers. You set the agenda and come with it in writing. If your mentor asks you to do something, make the necessary adjustments, but do it. This does not prevent healthy disagreements and intense conversations, but you either want their advice or you don’t. If you don’t, that’s OK, but then stop taking their time, and end the mentoring relationship with respect and gratitude.
I’ve been blessed with five mentors over the course of my life, and I’m grateful! I’m sure that’s part of the reason I’m eager to coach as many as I can. I trust that you will also pass on what is given to you.
Dan Reiland is executive pastor of 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Ga., listed in Outreach magazine as the No. 1 fastest-growing church in America in 2010. He has worked closely with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as executive pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as vice president of leadership and church development at INJOY. His semi-monthly e-newsletter, The Pastor’s Coach, is distributed to more than 40,000 subscribers. Dan is the author of Amplified Leadership, released in January 2012.
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