Unlock the Secret of Your Mentor’s Success

Unlock the Secret of Your Mentor’s Success – a guest post by Bernie Swain

If you’re a new hire or a rising star at a company that takes leadership development seriously, you’re likely to find yourself in a mentoring program. Ideally, you’ll be paired with a widely respected executive, perhaps bolstered by a professional executive coach. A good mentor can not only help you connect successfully with superiors, peers, and subordinates but also guide you through the organization’s folkways and culture. Over the course of the program, you may have many wide-ranging conversations—about leadership styles, company politics, business challenges, and your professional progress. But there is one conversation that could make all the difference—in your relationship with your mentor and your understanding of yourself.

It starts with a deceptively simple question. Ask your mentor this: “What is the defining moment in your life that made you who you are as a leader?” Make it clear that you’re not asking about a career defining moment or turning point—that big deal they engineered against all odds or that key promotion that put them in a position to show what they could really do. Those are the results of being who they are, not the source. You’re asking about their defining moment as a person—about what individual, event, or environment inspired them to become the kind of leader they are.

Over the past ten years, I’ve put that question to one hundred of the eminent leaders my lecture firm represents—Madeleine Albright, Tony Blair Tom Brokaw, Debbi Fields (of Mrs. Fields cookies), Mike Krzyzewski, Colin Powell, Bob Woodward, to name only a few. Their career achievements speak for themselves. But the secret of their success is not their talent, hard work and determination, but what they see as the turning points in their lives—the defining moments and influences from which they draw motivation and inspiration.

For Tom Brokaw it was a political science professor who encouraged him to finish college; for Colin Powell it was the nurturing multi-cultural South Bronx neighborhood in which he was reared; for Debbi Fields it was unforgettable insult at the hands of a snob. Bob Woodward acquired his relentless hunger for the truth as a fifteen-year-old while working as a janitor in his father’s law firm. He peaked at case files about people he knew in his small town and learned that behind the façade that people presented there often lurked a more sordid truth. “For a boy of fifteen, who had a sheltered childhood, this was a revelation,” he told me.

A highly accomplished mentor is likely to have a comparable story to tell. Get them to tell it. You will learn more about them that way, and about the powerful sources of leadership, than you will by sticking exclusively to matters of business. The conversation will also help cement the relationship, creating a bond that could last for the rest of your career. It will lead you to think more deeply about what makes you who you are, put you in touch with the sources of your strengths, biases, and weaknesses, and help you better understand the people you lead because you understand yourself.

Three further bits of advice:

First, you will have to initiate the conversation. In my experience, most great leaders are, at bottom, genuinely humble—and often come from humble backgrounds. Their modesty forbids their telling didactic stories about themselves.

Second, be aware of the timing. Wait until you have established a truly personal relationship before you broach the subject. Otherwise, it could seem fawning and insincere. I was able to ask the question of the leaders my firm represents because they knew me and trusted me and were therefore willing to open up.

Third, if you dare to ask the question, be prepared to answer it. After your mentor unburdens, don’t be surprised if the question is turned back to you. Answering it as truthfully as possible could be beneficial for you and your mentor.


About Bernie.
Bernie Swain is co-founder and Chairman of Washington Speakers Bureau and today’s foremost authority on the lecture industry. Over the past 35 years, he has represented former US Presidents, American and world leaders, journalists, authors, business visionaries, and sports legends.

Follow him on twitter @Swain_Bernie or via his website BernieSwain.com