The secret to great relationships with mentors? Reciprocity

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I can honestly say that my business would have failed miserably without great mentors.  Since the first day I opened my doors (11 years and 2 days ago!), I relied upon the good faith, support, advice and encouragement of smart and experienced mentors.  In addition to helping with general questions (How much should I charge a client?  How should I market my services?  How do I deal with a surly and difficult executive?), just knowing that they cared about my success gave me a tremendous psychological boost.

I have written about how to find good mentors before, but I wanted to highlight a key component of an effective mentor-mentee relationship that was driven home for me recently:  reciprocity.

Besides people that I have worked with directly or know personally, I have a collection of "professional mentors" that often have no idea I exist.  I guess it is the equivalent of being a business guru groupie.  These are people whose work I follow over a number of years because I like what they do and who they are as people.  And over time, given the right conditions, we connect personally.  For my business, these include people like Martha Beck, Andrea Lee, John Jantsch and  Robert Middleton.

I first met Robert Middleton at his workshop in the San Francisco Bay Area about 6 years ago.  He is a marketing consultant who works exclusively with independent service professionals (like coaches, consultants, therapists, and advisors).  In the workshop, he introduced the concept of "Infoguru," which essentially states that in order to build a strong and  effective connection with your market, you should share a large quantity of high-quality, useful and free information,  build a relationship over time, then charge a premium for specialized products or services.  I really resonated with the concept as I have never felt comfortable with a one-sided and pushy sales and marketing model.  I applied a lot of his ideas to my own business, and that of my clients, to great success.

In the years since I met Robert, by actively reading his weekly ezine, I saw his own business grow, going from a mailing list of 5,000 to 50,000, and his products and services change to meet the needs of his client base.  What I like best about him is that he is very sincere and practical.  His information products are truly useful, and I never get the "slimy marketer" aftertaste when reading his sales letters.  He slowly builds his business, based on careful research and testing.  I have probably referred thousands of people to his website over the years, all with no hesitation, as I knew that what he offered was really valuable.

So recently, I noticed that while he posted a version of his weekly ezine on his blog, he didn’t do much else with it, nor did he talk about blogging as a central and effective marketing strategy.  Due to my own amazing experience with blogging, it seemed like he was missing some opportunities to share this  strategy with his readership and clients.  So I sent him a brief email asking what his thoughts were about blogging as a marketing strategy.  And he responded back, curious to hear how I had used my blog to grow my business.  He said he had heard lots of hype before and was a bit skeptical of the whole thing.  So we had a phone conversation which really piqued his interest.  And he followed up a few days later asking if I would be willing to be interviewed about blogging for an audio product that he could share with his readers.

We put together an outline and had a juicy 75-minute conversation about how you can use blogging as a key and central part of your online marketing efforts.  He got really jazzed about how he could use blogging to share more information and build relationships in his own business, in addition to how it applies to his readers. (You can see the resulting product here)

The whole experience made me feel really good.  Here was someone who I had admired for years, whose work I had followed and applied with great success.  And despite his 23 years experience as a professional marketing coach as compared to my "enthusiastic amateur" status, I had a sliver of professional insight that was truly new and useful to him. 

And this is what I took away from the experience:

  • Those you admire the most have a need for new and different insight, information and resources.  No one is omnipotent, and even the smartest business gurus have blind spots.  Look at their business and ask "What is missing?" If you know of information or resources that would help them fill these blind spots, share them.
  • Be proud of what you know.  It can be intimidating to approach someone you really respect because you may wonder if you are "worthy" of their time and attention. Hogwash!  All of us have something valuable to offer the world, and we often project superhuman qualities on those we admire.  They are exactly like us, with the same anxiety and stresses.  The only difference is that they have mastered action and implementation.  (Qualities I now think are the essential characteristics of successful entrepreneurs.  Planning, brilliance, innovation and creativity are all important, but mean nothing if you can’t get off your rear and get some things done.)
  • Beware of becoming "one who asks too much."  As I said before, a great mentor-mentee relationship requires give and take.  Even the most generous soul will tire of continual questions and advice, since they have their own business to run and life to live.  So if you find yourself continually asking for advice or favors, switch tactics and ask  "What can I offer this person that will make their life or business easier or more successful?"  One of my dearest  mentors, Dr. Srikumar Rao, always approaches people he is interested in connecting with this way, and it is both refreshing and very genuine.

I offer my encouragement to each of you to reach out to a respected mentor this coming week and share a piece of valuable insight or information.  Don’t worry about the outcome — the important thing is to get in the habit of doing it on a regular basis.  You may just end up like me, and be delighted by a totally unexpected result!

11 Responses to “The secret to great relationships with mentors? Reciprocity”

  1. SimoneM says:

    I found the BlogSecrets and BlogResources that you developed with Robert Middleton really useful. I have recently stumbled upon a brilliant new mentor (who is helping me develop my blogging skills)and it has given me the chance to reciprocate by helping him with some training programs. At first it felt a little uncomfortable that money wasn’t changing hands but it has turned out to be one of the best working relationships I’ve had!

  2. Maria says:

    I really enjoyed this post- as someone is starting out and is getting used to mentor relationships it’s good to be reminded they can work both wasys. As a cheeky aside, I’m a blogging newbie, so was wondering how I could get hold of the audio material you refer to in the post?

  3. I really like this post. People have to be reminded that the mentor- relationships are worth the time!

  4. Hi Pam,

    As a professional mentor, I really appreciated your post about the importance of reciprocity!

    I have either met or worked with all of your favourite mentors and agree they are really cool people!

    I’ve always advocated approaching the relationship from the point of view of providing service and value to another first and that is one thing your fave picks have in common.

    It’s great to hear someone has had such a positive experience with reciprocity and I’m so glad you took the time to write about it!

    On behalf of mentors everywhere, THANK YOU!

    Linda M. Lopeke

  5. Vikram Rajan says:

    Yes, I too have followed Robert Middleton for years and am happy he’s joining us in the 21st century 😉 I saw that in the latest newsletter.. cool!

    ~ Vikram

  6. Thanks very much for the inspiring post. I’m at the stage where I’m reevaluating my relationships, and one area I need to have happen is finding a mentor. I’m hopping over to your post right now.

  7. Roman Rytov says:

    Great post and thanks for pointing to Robert’s site.
    Maybe one finds useful my thoughts about finding mentors here

  8. Laura West says:

    Hi Pam!

    I too receive Robert’s great newsletter. I bought your audio/transcript of the interview mostly because of the juicy stuff at the end – what to do with your blog after it’s been up and running.
    Thanks so much for your practical – in-the-trenches tips! It was totally worth it from those two tips I took away!

  9. Pam,
    I have followed Robert’s work also, and wondered why he was just reposting his newsletter on his blog. You’ve done us all a service, since I’m sure we’ll all benefit from more of his insight and yours.

  10. Tony Wright says:

    Pam – what a terrific and typically generous post. Insightful and inspiring. I sometimes wonder ‘what could I possibly offer a mentor?’… apart, perhaps, from a recommendation about where to find a decent pint of beer if you’re ever in London. Then it came to me – how about a quick word of ‘thanks’ and encouragement: keep up the good work.

  11. Tiffany says:

    Excellent post. I really love all three tips. I think for younger workers, this can be difficult advice to take, because it can be tough to find the confidence. But personally, I find that when I’m open and honest with mentors who I have a good relationships with, they appreciate my expertise in areas they don’t have experience in or simply input from a different perspective. But man, giving “constructive criticism” – especially unsolicited – to people you admire is an insanely challenging thing!