One of my mentors died on Monday. Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, was mentor to thousands of people some famous, others, like me, who were his co-workers. Google “Andy Grove mentor” and you will see a who’s who of Silicon Valley including Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and VMWare CEO, Pat Gelsinger. If they needed a mentor, you do too.
Research shows that having a mentor in college is a leading factor in having a successful college experience. This is especially true of students who are the first in their family to attend college.
Andy was not a guy who would want people spending time on emotional tributes for him. He would want them to do something useful. So here are my thoughts on mentors.
1) If your mentor is called your mentor, they are not your mentor.
A mentor is someone who is important in your academic/corporate life with whom you have a relationship built on shared interests. I’ll bet no one asked Grove to be their “mentor.” They asked him for advice, they had their projects reviewed by him or they worked with him on a project. It was about solving problems and getting things done. Even if they met with him regularly it was not about having coffee, it was about substance. Your mentor may be a professor, an academic advisor, a coach or your aunt who was the only woman in her med school class. If it’s a professor, it is very important to work with him or her on research to create this shared experience.
2) Pick a mentor who matches your style.
I seem to respond well to direct criticism. That doesn’t work for everyone!
I had a broadcasting professor in college, Garnett Garrison, who remained my first mentor for 20 years. After one particularly mediocre project by me, in front of the whole class he boomed, “Raftrey, do you want to work in Ypsilanti the rest of your life?”
Similarly, one day shortly after I had joined Andy’s communication team he caught me in the hallway and peppered me with questions about a project I was working on. My answers were unsatisfactory to him and he looked me intently in the eye, sternly said, “Do your job,” and turned and walked away.
Professor Garrison changed his style based on who his students were.
Andy had one style, and many people would start sending out resumes after a tough encounter. For some reason, that style worked with me. Whenever, I was in the penalty box at Intel, I would just tell myself I must have an important assignment if Andy Grove was taking the time to yell at me!
I didn’t end up in Ypsilanti and I did my job. I had lunch with Professor Garrison when I was working in broadcasting in San Francisco. I received a warm hug from Grove when I last saw him a several years ago. Outside of maybe a parent, approval from a mentor is the best approval there is.
3) If you ask your mentor for advice or a recommendation, let them know how things turned out.
Nothing can weaken your relationship with a mentor more than not closing the loop. They’ve just spent an hour using all their brainpower helping you solve your problem or an hour finely crafting that recommendation letter. If you don’t get back to them they will feel used and will stop investing in you. This goes for high school teachers and counselors. If your teacher writes a recommendation, let them know where you got in and where you didn’t. Close the loop. And say, “Thank-you.”
4) Listen when they are giving you bad news.
Don’t just listen to why your proposal needed to be re-written, you’re not getting the A or you’re not going to get the promotion. Listen to how they are telling you. Are they letting you keep your dignity while directly telling you the unfortunate truth? How are you feeling? Do you think you could keep working with this person? If the answers are yes, then your mentor just gave you a valuable lesson in how to deal with people. Andy was very hard on just about everybody, but everyone knew it was because he cared and he wanted to win. But he also gave out sincere, real, well-earned compliments. He had a big stick, but he had a pocket full of carrots as well. His hand-written brief comments on yellow sticky-notes were coveted and legendary. If your mentor doesn’t offer some encouragement once in a while, get a new mentor. They are not teaching you what you need to learn.
5) Bring something to the relationship.
Andy was famous for getting more information from his staff than they got from him. He would probe them to teach him what they knew. Mentors want to spend time with people who can help them, too. What can you teach your professor? You can tell them the class was lost during today’s lecture and maybe they should go over it again. You can bring them an article from Reddit that perhaps they haven’t read. Or you can even teach him them to use Reddit and get them to do a guest slot on Ask Me Anything! Mostly, you can offer your enthusiasm for what they are doing. Professors are starved for students who care.
So Andy is no longer with us. But we all still want to make him proud. And that’s why more than a few tears have been shed by a lot of people over the last few days for the best mentor a person could have. Go out and find the mentor who will change your life. It will make all the difference.