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When and How to Choose your Mentors

Published on
June 19, 2022
Tony D. Thelen
Chief Product Officer at John Deere Financial
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I took up flyfishing in the early 90’s and basically struggled with the sport for the first 5 years. Mostly because I was learning to do it on my own, but also because of where I was fishing. Northeast Iowa is full of beautiful small streams that hold rainbow, brown, and the occasional brook trout. But the fish are spooky, the streams are small and require very accurate casting, and there are trees everywhere that catch your back cast all the time. No matter what I did it seemed it was always met with limited success.

Then one day I hired a guide, and everything changed.

It was on the Yellowstone River near Livingston, Montana, and I was fishing with a friend of mine who was likewise trying to learn the sport. We spent 8 hours floating 20 miles of the Yellowstone catching 15-20” rainbow and brown trout all day long. We lost count of how many we caught around noon. But the more important event that happened that day was not the fish that was caught but the questions that were answered.

We pelted the guide with questions all day long. There are a million things that have to go right to fool trout to take your fly, and another million things that have to go right in order to land a trout on moving water. How do you read water to know where fish might lie? How do you know what flies to use? How do you set the hook? What is the right way to wade into a pool? How can you cast and get your fly to land naturally on the water? How do you cast in the wind? What knots do you use? How do you fight the fish over a rapids? The questions came from 5 years of hard knocks learning to fly fish with a do-it-yourself approach. From that day forward our knowledge base and mindset shifted light years ahead.

I reflect back on that experience and I think about the guides, or mentors, that I’ve had over my career and find a similar pattern. I pour myself into an initiative and bump into obstacles and challenges. I end up learning from others who have been there before, and my performance in the initiative and my own development improve because of it. Just like that day on the Yellowstone in the early ‘90’s.

I’ve found there are 5 times when a mentor has made the difference in my life.

They are:

1.    When I want to know how I work best. This was always someone who I worked close enough and trusted enough that they could explain where I was effective and where I wasn’t. Sometimes brutally honest feedback from someone you trust makes all the difference in the world.

2.    When I want to know how the business/company works. This is someone who has been around long enough to truly understand how the company creates value, how the business operates, how decisions get made, has survived a few different market conditions or cycles, and knows what works in the company culture and what generally doesn’t.

Pro-Tip: For 1 and 2 above, it may not be the same person.

3.    When I was preparing to take on a new role, a new team, or a new challenge of any kind. The bigger the stretch in the new change the bigger the benefit for having a mentor.

4.    When I was stuck in a rut in my career or life, and I just needed someone to help me get “unstuck”. We all get stuck sometime, someplace, for some reason. It happens to all of us. The only question is how to get unstuck and what can we learn?

Pro-Tip: It's OK to have more than one mentor in your life. Over the last 30 years I've had mentors for my work, and some mentors in my personal life. The personal mentors help me with raising a family, growing in my faith, and how to handle my personal finances, for example. Sometimes we meet once or twice a year, other times once every 2 years. It all depends on where I am in life and what's going on.

5.    When I was up against a major decision in my career. Do I take this new opportunity? Do I stay with my current company? Do I go back for an MBA or advanced degree? All of these, and many more, can best be navigated with council from others who have been there before. In fact, a great piece of advice I once received before I made a big change in my career was to pause for a moment and ask others who have been through the experience if the sacrifice was worth it.

There are a few other things I have learned about mentoring over the years:

  1. You have the potential to learn more than what you bargained for if you have a strong mentoring relationship. You may start out talking about career issues but end up learning more about life in general. The essence of strong, positive mentoring is relationship building and learning, and these can go in many directions over the years.
  2. For you mentors out there, if you listen really carefully, you’ll find out that you can learn a lot also. The truth is in a real mentoring relationship both the mentee and the mentor grow. It really is a 2 way street when it operates at it's finest.
  3. One last point, and it’s an important one. Like what Govinda learned in Herman Hesse’s famous book Siddartha, true learning and growth can only come from “within”. That is to say, you cannot gain true happiness by meeting with guru’s, always seeking input from others, and going from place to place “looking for happiness”. Happiness and fulfillment comes from within, and it’s through your own personal actions, decisions, and steps through life that you attain growth, satisfaction, achievement, happiness, or whatever you call enlightenment in this world. You are on a journey, and it’s your journey alone. Your decisions make up that journey. There is no way getting around the fact that you have to make decisions and no one can do that for you. YES - seek council, learn from others experience, accelerate your growth through reading and mentors, but in the end, it must lead to helping you on your journey and no one can do that for you.

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