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(This post appeared online in Fast Company)
By Eric McDonald
“Seek first to understand, then be understood.”
Those seven words have shaped my business, and the culture my team and I have put in place. I can’t take credit for them. My father-in-law, who is also my business’s original investor and one of my valued mentors, provided me with those wise words. He found the mantra in Stephen Covey’s best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and it’s become the backbone of his companies.
When I started my company 14 years ago, I didn’t realize the importance of having mentors to share advice like this. I thought I had it all figured out. Maturity and failure made me realize I was wrong.
So a few years after starting DocuTAP, I began compiling my Mount Rushmore of mentors. My father-in-law is my George Washington. A traditional businessman, Jan Schuiteman started a number of companies organically, reinvesting profits, and nurturing his teams along the way. Schuiteman made me realize how much company culture matters.
To that point, Schuiteman has walked away from million-dollar investments if a relationship was in jeopardy. He’s unwilling to allow people to take advantage of him, and he senses which relationships have longevity and are worth investing in. That story of decision-making speaks to his character, and it’s something I’ve tried to model.
Friend and serial entrepreneur Robb Corwin plays a good Thomas Jefferson. Corwin built 30 companies by the time he was 40 years old. Robb reminds me to be intentional with every decision I make. “We only have 168 hours in a week,” he says. “If we’re intentional, we can make the most of our time.”
My spiritual leader is my Abraham Lincoln. Pastor Greg helped me build a spiritual foundation for my life. He encouraged me to study God, and through Scripture reading, I’ve learned how to focus on building that essential foundation. Fittingly, Pastor Greg helps keep me honest.
Anthony Kruse, my beloved late friend, and the former cofounder of Crocs is my Theodore Roosevelt. Shortly before he died he told me “to run harder and faster.” A great success by age 36, Kruse’s short life left a lasting impression on me. I learned about the importance of legacy decision-making from him.
CEOs often forget about the value of having mentors. Contrary to what we may like to believe, we don’t know everything. Having people on the periphery, cheering you on and advising you, is essential to your success.
Here’s what to look for in a mentor as you compose your own Mount Rushmore:
1. FIND MORE THAN ONE
Rarely will a single mentor challenge you in all facets of your business. Rather than focus on finding specific traits or experiences, look for multiple mentors.
2. SEEK A MENTOR WHO IS GOING TO PUSH YOU BEYOND WHAT YOU THINK YOU’RE CAPABLE OF
Each of my mentors have made me feel uneasy at times, pushing me into uncharted waters, or to lead in a way that doesn’t come naturally. That uneasy feeling means your mentors have your best interest in mind.
3. FIND A MENTOR WHO HAS ALREADY BEEN THERE AND DONE THAT
For instance, I sought mentors that have built successful startups. They also have experience with private equity investors. Some of my mentors are more conservative and have helped me focus on the basics of growing a business. Others are more aggressive and have helped me push the envelope of growth versus profitability. But all of them have experience I can benefit from. Find people that have lived and breathed their niche.
4. SEEK A MENTOR THAT ISN’T AFRAID TO TELL YOU NO
A mentor must challenge a mentee. Not every idea is a good one. Your mentor shouldn’t coddle you.
5. FIND A NEW MENTOR EVERY THREE YEARS OR SO
If your mentor does their job and they’ve helped bring you to their level, then they’ve been successful. That’s when it’s time to find a new mentor.
My mentors have made me better and wiser. They’ve each taught me something about myself and shaped my decision-making. Their guidance has made me a better leader. I believe I’ve taken the best parts of each of them, and have instilled those qualities into my company.
As my business continues to grow, I think of my mentors often. Like my home state of South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore, my mentors are an eclectic group. If you want to build a better business, go out and find your George, Thomas, Abe, and Teddy.