I’ve noticed that the companies that focus on people have long term success; however, I’ve been frustrated that many times this pattern and reason aren’t obvious to those inside the business at the time. Then, years later with lower profitability and diminished sales growth, they wonder what has gone wrong. Since I’ve thought about this topic quite a bit lately, I thought I’d focus on one of the keys to success related to this topic – mentoring.

None of the companies I’ve worked with have formally focused on mentoring; however, the ones that have been successful had mentoring as a part of the culture (whether or not it was termed “mentoring”). Webster’s defines mentoring as “to serve as a trusted counselor or teacher”. I’ve found that finding mentors (and eventually serving as a mentor) is one of the best ways to learn and grow your skills and behaviors that are integral to whatever skillets/ end results you want to achieve. I’ve been very fortunate to have several mentors over time, which is the ’80/20′ of how I’ve achieved my success to date. It doesn’t have to be a formal program. All of mine were informal, ranging from mentors in subject areas of HR/ organizational development, Finance, Costing, Operations, IT, Business evaluation, etc.

Mentors or training programs? I’ve done both, and both have their benefits. However, the key distinguishing benefit of finding a mentor is that many people learn best through hands on experience. I’ve learned a tremendous amount through observation alone (yes, not all my mentors even knew they were my mentor!). If you observe what works and what doesn’t work around you and then try to apply those skills, techniques and behaviors, it is amazing what you can achieve. This foundation can sometimes teach you more than a $10,000 class; however, to take full advantage of mentoring, you should ask questions. If you ask questions of your mentor about what he/ she does, why, what works, what doesn’t, etc, you’ll learn a tremendous amount. Then, the key is to try it out – otherwise, it is just an interesting exercise. The ultimate is when you ask your mentor to provide feedback as you try out / learn aspects from them. It is vital to consider feedback in a positive way. I’ve found that feedback “works” when it is from a trusted source(s) – one that you know has your best interests at heart. Then, it is invaluable.

I thought I’d provide a few examples of how this has worked for me. Early in my career, I had a Finance mentor who encouraged me to learn the aspects of finance that related to operations (my background). Not only did I learn quite a few tidbits that came in quite handy in future jobs, I also ended up focusing my MBA on finance, which has provided several unexpected benefits over the years. I also had an outstanding HR / organizational development mentor who not only helped me survive through an “if you can survive through this people situation, you can survive through anything” but also gave me more knowledge than imaginable that is now one of the core principles for my consulting work – appreciating people’s value and leveraging people. There are too many mentors to mention since I was fortunate to have mentors in IT, Costing/ Profit Drivers, Business evaluation, Operations, Logistics, Purchasing/ Negotiation (I can’t tell you how awful I was at first with this subject – and was very fortunate to have an amazing mentor), Consulting, Sales & Marketing, and, most recently, Accounting/ compliance.

Give it a try, have an open mind and you’ll be amazed with the results.