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Mentoring truisms from the master

(MoneyWatch) You're reading this blog post because, back in 1996, I always seemed to be walking into the same elevators that Warren Bennis was walking in or out of.

I was a new assistant professor at the USC Business School (we weren't named Marshall for another year), working hard to establish myself, and was usually almost late. Running into elevators helped. In those brief meetings over five years, he'd ask questions about my writing and teaching, and offer an occasional piece of advice. Those conversations changed my life. They led to every major career decision I have made since, including the decision to blog for CBS "MoneyWatch." So, if you get any value from what's on your screen, thank Warren Bennis.

This week is Dr. Bennis' birthday, and that makes it a perfect time to point out some basic truisms, and expose some flawed conventional wisdom, about what a mentor does, why you need to mentor others, and how to get a world-class mentor.

Truism #1: Mentors change their proteges. The process is like science fiction. The mentor sees the person you can and should become, and speaks to that person. In a process I can only describe as "two headed," you don't answer -- the person you want to become does. The other you -- the ordinary person -- watches it happen, in amazement and wonder. In the presence of the great mentor, you find yourself a different person, a better person. You want the shift to become permanent, and so you work like mad to become the person the mentor spoke with. And when you do, the mentor repeats the process.

Every great mentor projects some of who they are onto their proteges, and some of it sticks for life. In Dr. Bennis' case, he projects gentility from another era, intellectual curiosity that must have been normal in the Jazz Age in Paris, and a love of literature. In something out of the movie Limitless, I am a smarter person when I'm around him, able to recall bits from literature that I would have said I didn't remember reading prior to the meeting. I connect dots I didn't know were there. As other "Bennis-ites" will tell you, this is normal, and is one of the reasons people feel they owe so much to him. He didn't reinvent them. He provides a catalyst for people to change themselves. The value of visiting a great mentor is half to ask for advice, and half seeing what you can come up with while in their presence.

Truism #2: Mentoring is an expression of who the mentor is, and preparation gets in the way. When I got to know Dr. Bennis on a deeper level, I told him about the impact of our random conversations, and he didn't remember them. He laughed, and said he often hears that a conversation changed someone's life, and that he can't recall it. Like most great mentors, what he does comes so naturally that the events don't register in his mind as exceptional. Memory studies say we remember things that are out of the ordinary, that are unique or surprising in some way. To Dr. Bennis, mentoring a junior colleague in a random meeting was as ordinary as my taking the elevator. No need to form a memory about something that happens every day.

Truism #3: Mentoring benefits the mentor as much as the protege. Great mentors mentor for the same reason writers write -- it's who they are. More importantly, the mentor gains from the exchange in ways the protege will only understand when sitting in the mentor's chair. Mentoring is, by its nature, reciprocal. The mentor walks away with ideas crystalized, new thoughts worth exploring, and new directions to consider. I've learned from Dr. Bennis that no matter how busy I am, life will go much better for everyone (including me) if I take time out to mentor. This blog is a result of spending some time with a senior executive who was having trouble mentoring the new crop of leaders. He probably thinks I did it as a favor. The truth is, I wrote it a first draft in my car before driving home.

Truism #4: Mentoring can be done en masse. The truth is, Dr. Bennis' mentoring started almost 20 years ago, when I picked up a copy of On Becoming a Leader. In a process that I can only describe as spooky, I felt that the book had been written just to me, that he understood me better than I understood myself. People often comment how fortunate I am to have a mentor as gifted as Dr. Bennis, and they're more right than they know. But great mentors have a knack for working their magic en masse. Some do audio recordings, like Alan Watts. Others allowed lectures to be recorded, like Joseph Campbell. And some write books, like Warren Bennis. (You may also want to see him in action. Here's a 2010 conversation between Dr. Bennis and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, which I had the honor of introducing.)

If you want guidance from the best mentor in the world, follow this process exactly:

First, get a copy of On Becoming a Leader, Organizing Genius, and Still Surprised. Get the actual books, not an ebook. Don't read the books, converse with the author, by writing comments and questions in the margins. The process I'm describing was common a generation ago, and perhaps one of the reasons the Greatest Generation was so great. My father is the same age as Dr. Bennis, also a veteran World War II, also a teacher, and read books this way. His many copies of Rise and Fall of the British Empire and The Odyssey are filled with rebuttals, questions, insights, references to other books, and epiphanies. The point is: Read Dr. Bennis like my dad read Homer. Allow that part of you that you want to become lead the conversation. If you do, you'll find him whispering in your ear, and like a 26-year-old assistant professor, your life will change in ways you can't imagine.

I would like to encourage a special type of comment on this blog post: Has your life been changed by Dr. Bennis, through his writings, hearing one of his speeches, being one of students, or through a random meeting? If so, I encourage you to make a comment below.

Happy Birthday, Dr. Bennis!


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