The People Behind Great Business Leaders

A small business owner sitting down and talking with his mentor.

Look at great leaders in any field – politics, medicine, academics, business, non-profits, etc. Most have a tendency to believe these people got where they are on their own. They did it all by themselves. They naturally knew what they had to do and they did it.

But when you look more closely at them, when you look at their careers, when you start to peel back the onion on their stories, something different emerges. Along the way to where they’re at right now, these leaders had people they turned to for advice and guidance.

Sometimes those people remained in the background, not wanting to be known for how they helped. All they wanted was to take pleasure in seeing how the person they were working with succeeded beyond their wildest expectations.

The people leaders turn to for advice and guidance are mentors or coaches. defines a mentor as:

A wise and trusted counselor and teacher, an influential senior sponsor or supporter.”

Many of the most notable business leaders and CEOs and presidents of companies have had mentors who have had a remarkable impact on their lives. Here are a few examples from “The Top 25 Mentoring Relationships in History:”

  • At various points during his career, Steve Jobs had different mentors. The most notable one was Bill Campbell on Apple’s Board of Directors. Steve sought him out on many of the most important issues facing Apple.
  • Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, has had different mentors during her career. One of her college professors, Larry Summers, is one of the most prominent. She also worked for Larry Summers at the World Bank and in the US Treasury Department.
  • Yvon Chouinard, the founder and owner of Patagonia Clothing, had no business experience when starting Patagonia. His best friend, Norm Tompkins, who started the apparel company North Face, mentored him in running the business.
  • Bill Gates credits Warren Buffett as being one of his mentors.

The Greatest Leaders Are Those . . .

. . . who realize they don’t know how to do everything. They look for a mentor to advise them on how to do what is necessary.

Ideally, the best mentor for a business owner or president is someone who has worked in the same field the company is in. They have already experienced the challenges that are going to arise and know how to resolve them.

The ideal mentor also has certain qualities. The most important are:

  • They have a genuine interest in you and in helping you succeed.
  • They openly share their ideas, knowledge and expertise with you.
  • They are enthusiastic about your business, vision and goals.
  • They never stop learning.
  • They are willing to guide you and give you the feedback you need.
  • They have the respect of their counterparts in business.
  • They are regularly looking to advance themselves.
  • When they don’t have the answer, they will recommend someone who may.

Nobody Learns Everything on Their Own

Throughout their own careers, they had their own mentors giving them advice, help and guidance. Each mentor may add his or her own little twist to what they learned from their mentor. It looks like the pyramid below. With you at the top and each of your mentors and their mentors below.

A chart that explains how your mentors pass down knowledge they received from their mentors.By now, you may realize you could benefit from having a mentor. It doesn’t make much sense to struggle with learning everything on your own when there are people who have already faced many of the challenges you may encounter and are willing to let you know what worked and what didn’t work for them.

You may have already identified a person to mentor you. If not, ask colleagues or friends who they would recommend.

Then, approach that person, explain what you are looking for and see if they will mentor you. If they don’t have the time or you or they don’t feel it’s a good match, ask them to recommend someone who might be.

Remember, one mentor may not have the knowledge in all the areas where you need help. You may need separate mentors for different areas.

It is up to you and your mentor to determine how frequently you meet. Your mentor should also be open to phone calls from you when you need help. This may be regarding a crisis right now or for advice on a matter that can’t wait.

About Andrew Clarke

Andrew Clarke is President of Ground Floor Partners. Over the past twenty years he has advised hundreds of small businesses on strategy, marketing, real estate and finance. He is passionate about small business, social and environmental justice, and is a proud member of the American Sustainable Business Council, Food and Water Watch, Green America, Food Consultants Group, and the American Planning Association.

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