Last week's Think Big conference in Dallas inspired this speech today to Columbus Rotary.

On Mentoring

Before I start, a quick note about technology. 

Your smartphones, your iPads — I'd like you to turn them on. Not off. On.

You see: I come from the future.

It would be wonderful if you Facebooked and Tweeted and posted everything. It would be good for me, because I could go home and see what reached you. It would be good for those who are not here — another service from Rotary — because thousands could be touched through the Internet. And it would certainly be good for Rotary — because it would be another way, the most contemporary way, of Rotary saying, "It is Monday and we are here."

Hashtag: #ColumbusRotaryToday

You have someone on your shoulder. Someone who rests there, whispering in your ear.

According to Warner Bros. on Saturday mornings, there is an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.  

The devil urges you to boastful self-importance. It whispers: "It is for you that the world was created." The other — the angel — argues to the contrary, begging for modesty and humility. The whisper: "You are nothing but dust in the wind." 

In business, we don't always have a cartoon devil and a cartoon angel. Maybe, a shark and Buddhist. Grasping for more — glad for what we have.

Maybe it's a doctor and a bartender. The doctor says: "That dessert? I wouldn't make a career out of it." The bartender asks: "Another round?"

The voices vary by the situation. "Come hither." "Better stay yonder."

Who are these voices? They are the loops of ethics, morals, and practical self-management — loops that play in our heads when familiar situations arise. Crossing the street, there is mother: "Look both ways. Danger."

Where did they come from? Experience. Teachers. Role Models. 


Ken Ackerman invited me to talk about mentoring. Thank you, Ken. Your invitation is another example of your mentorship. Here is that talk. 

I spent last week with more than 1,100 mentors in Dallas, Texas, including Ken Ackerman. We gathered from around the world at a bi-annual convention of Vistage International, the world's largest organization of CEOs. Vistage is what Ken calls "a laboratory of leadership."

It is that: a laboratory of leadership. It is also a mall of mentors. One can browse all day for the best mentor for the moment. Each person stands ready to mentor another.

The experience of the past week — and the past year, my first as a Vistage chair, have led me to contemplate and study mentorship. From that study, I have prepared a short, incomplete list of my mentors. I will describe four mentors, briefly, and summarize the skills each has demonstrated. Perhaps you will hear about one of these mentors, what he did, and consider applying the skills.  

First, a demographic note. These four mentors are all white men. I am aware of that. I have had mentors of various races and both genders. But these are the four primary mentors who come to mind for teaching me about mentorship. They happen to be white men.  

The first mentor…


1. David Trowbridge

David Trowbridge died recently. In 1973 and 1974, he was my eighth grade grammar teacher at Columbus Academy. His work in the classroom taught me the trade of a lifetime: I am a writer. When at my best, I employ the technique he taught: précis, brevity in prose. I owe him this sentence. In the classroom, he was my teacher. 

But it was during his office hours that he was my mentor. David Trowbridge was the first adult with whom I sat for conversations about nothing and everything. The subject matter didn't matter. What mattered was his demonstration of how to talk to young people.

Here is the first skill of the mentor: to treat the mentee as an adult. This might sound simple, but the mentoring relationship starts hierarchically, so it can become stilted. The mentor takes on airs, like the guru on the mount.

He was "Mr. Trowbridge" to me. But, to lift me into adulthood, he always called me "Mr. Isaac" in front of others. In the quiet of his office, he called me "Artie." In public, he called me formally, as he did all other students, as a show of respect. In private, he called me informally — again, as a show of respect. 

I would knock on his door and ask permission to enter. He would always — according to my memory — invite me in. "Sit down. What's on your mind?" He listened patiently. He always seemed genuinely interested in my opinions and observations. He inquired and responded. He laughed at the funny stuff. It was as if he wanted the conversation — it was neither a burden nor an interruption.

There was nothing complex, but now, nearly 40 years later, I remember these frequent conversations as magical. I remember them as the first conversations I had with an adult, beyond my parents, where the mentor saw me, not as a child, but as an adult.

This taught me the first rule of mentorship.

This first rule of mentorship — the Trowbridge Rule — applies to any conversation with a younger person. I have taught in many classrooms: from third grade, to seventh grade, to undergraduate, to graduate school, to business people, and I have found: no one likes to be talked down to. Everyone likes to be spoken to as an adult. 

What does it mean to speak to someone like an adult? To speak to them as if they were one year smarter than they are. Everyone — especially children — like to be spoken to as if they were one year smarter than they are.

The Trowbridge Rule: Speak as equals. Never patronize. 

A note: I visited Mr. Trowbridge not long before he died. I hadn't sat with him since eighth grade. We sat in his library and chatted, like adults. I expected to feel like I was 13 again. But he had added a year to my current age. He spoke to me as if I were an adult of 53 years, not a child of 52. 

The second mentor in today's list is…


2. Rob Emrich (his website)

Rob is a serial entrepreneur in California. He moved there — from here — a couple years ago. To be closer to the people who live and breathe high tech. Live and breathe — and fund. But he moved for more than money. He crossed the country for mentorship. He went where his high-tech mentors were to be more easily found.

Rob has taught me this, the Emrich Rule: if you want mentorship, acquire a mentor.

In Chaim Potok's classic The Chosen, young Reuven Malter is taught by his father that it is an obligation to — each year — "choose a friend and acquire a teacher." 

Rob and I met seven or eight years ago. It was an hourlong conversation in my office. Someone from the Jewish community had sent him over to me. Rob told me that he sought mentoring. He was acquiring a teacher. He asked many questions.

Years passed. 

Rob returned with a business idea and offered me a 50/50 deal to start a company. We did. It was a great experience. And, in the end, the money wasn't bad. By that I mean, we didn't lose too much.

As we worked, Rob was always transparent about how he spent his time. He would, once a week, perhaps every other week, ask me to listen to an update on his own time allocation: just five minutes of explanation. He always invited feedback on his time allocation. Does that sound insignificant? Not to Rob. Rob knows that how we spend our time is everything.

This is the underlying ethic of The Emrich Rule: every moment matters. 

Much of Rob Emrich's time management habits come from David Allen's book. Have you read it? Getting Things Done. It is the book I recommend most strongly. When you are hired by one of Rob's companies, this book is the first tool. It is given to you with the explanation: "Read this book. This is how we work." Getting Things Done by David Allen.

Time is everything, dispensed as pearls, not wasted. He likes to have fun and spends time in fun, too. But when he wants mentoring, there is a meeting and an agenda. When he has mentoring to offer, there is a meeting and an agenda. The meeting might be five minutes: always an agenda, presented in advance.

Years after we first met seven or eight years ago, when he first sought me out as a mentor, Rob sent me a transcript of that first conversation. He had, back then, when we first met, asked permission to record the conversation with a small audio recorder. Then he had gone home and transcribed the conversation. 

That might seem like a bad use of time, but Rob doesn't have mentoring conversations that aren't worth recording. When time matters, you pick mentors carefully. You ask questions that get to the heart of the challenge. You dig deep for the answers you need.

Every moment matters. Acquire a mentor and every moment matters.

Oh, right. I was supposed to be his mentor. That was his expectation. But that's not how it was. He was from the start — and is today — my mentor. 

A side note: Rob Emrich was my first mentor who is younger than I. Now, most of my mentors are younger than I. At first it was a humbling reminder of mortality. But, though it clearly says "second half of life," it also bodes well: if your mentors are younger than you, there is a continuously growing pool of mentor candidates.  

The third mentor…


3. Lee Lemke (his LinkedIn profile)

In 2008, the day the recession began, I sold my advertising agency and really didn't know what I was going to.

Lee Lemke called me from Huntington National Bank. He suggested that there was a creative challenge and I might be helpful. 

But that wasn't my business. That wasn't what I was doing. I told him so. I said something like, "I don't do that." Something like: "huh?"

He said, "I know. I think you would be really good at it. We need you to do this."

So I started. Every couple of months, Lee would call me and suggest a change in how I was being applied. He kept changing my job based on where we were and what the bank needed. I stopped saying things like "huh?" and just accepted his marching orders on the spot. 

Lee's approach to mentoring produced the Lemke Rule: focus on the talents.

He has a knack for management, for focusing on the talents at hand and applying them. Before I met Lee, I saw people as people. He saw me as a person, of course, but also as a peculiar set of ready skills and talents. 

And it was a great experience — and produced significant value for the Huntington.

The final mentor for today…


4. Adam Harris (his LinkedIn profile)

Adam lives in Nottingham, England, where he is a Vistage Chair.

Adam is a mentor to me, though he is much younger. He might be the youngest Vistage Chair.

Adam has taught me this: we must get to the root.

Issues — whether challenges or opportunities —  are rarely as simple as they seem. Think of a tree. The challenge or opportunity is easily seen: the leaves on the tree. But there are branches where they live, and a trunk of the tree, and as the mentor works, we eventually arrive at the root issue.

And the root issue is the only place the issue can be fully addressed. 

How does Adam get there? He asks questions.

And that is the Harris rule: mentoring is asking questions, not giving answers. Adam asks questions — and then questions the answers. That's because, when we go to our mentors, we already think we know the answers. Adam is where I turn to get my answers questioned. 

I find that every mentoring conversation ends only when I walk away. Because Adam always has another question. Just last week, he helped me through a sticky situation. But while the conversation ended with me saying, "Thank you. That was very helpful." — he was still standing there with a question on his face. "Do you really think we've gotten to the bottom of this?"

Rather than summarizing now, I will post the entire presentation on the web this afternoon. I'll send the link to Scott Brown who can share it with you.

I would rather spend the remaining minutes this way. Before I entertain questions, I want you to — just for two minutes — split up into pairs at your table. Tell the other person only this: finish two sentences. "One of my favorite mentors was ___________" and "He or she was a great mentor because ___________________."

[After two minutes, ask for comments or questions.]

[If time permits, recite Billy Collins' The Straightener.]

Call to Action:
Now, at the end of January, the year is still new. What do you want to learn? Who is in a position to teach you? Might that person become your mentor? All you need to do is ask. 

I wish you a year of growth. May you have the mentor — and be the mentor — the world needs.