“Mentoring is the thing that propels people to successful lives, in my opinion. It’s a great support system, it builds your self-confidence, and, more importantly, even if you’re asking for a mentor, I find — particularly with millennials — millennials can mentor you, too.” ~Dennis C. Miller
Dennis C. Miller is a longtime Ivy League-educated executive, including a stint as CEO of Somerset Medical Center and Healthcare Foundation. He is a trusted speaker and adviser to nonprofits and leaders, and an author of several books.
All of this sounds like the usual pedigree. But, as his website bio notes in part, as a child he “encountered emotional and physical abuse, difficulty in school, and mental health issues. Yet he refused to succumb to these challenges. At age 20, he voluntarily admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital to attain the care he needed. After a short stay, he continued to reach out to helping hands and chose to believe in his own potential to do and be something more.”
Miller’s story is one of perseverance and hard work, but it’s not a solitary journey. He had help and mentors and other aid along the way. We recently spoke about his journey, and why he believes so strongly in the power of mentorship, whether it be with millennials or any other generation.
Mentorship is a tricky thing. You can’t always just ask for someone to be your mentor.
Sheryl Sandberg, for instance, explicitly counsels women not to flat-out ask another women to be her mentor. Over Miller’s life, he’s had people reach out to him, and he’s also sought out people’s advice. Here are some of the keys to mentoring from our discussion.
What to ask for
One of the first things Miller and I discussed was the best advice he had ever received. Miller was in graduate school and was looking for a job. Former New York City health commissioner Lowell Bellin sent Miller to talk with someone, with the admonition, “Ask him for advice. Do not ask him for a job.”
Miller followed the advice to ask for advice, and through that came a job offer. The underlying truth of that story and the whole of our conversation is that what’s important about mentorship is to respect the other person’s time, have an agenda and structure, and know that these relationships often have natural ends.
How can millennials seek out a mentor?
“I try not to turn anybody down,” Miller said. “I think you have to take it upon yourself, regardless of what stage you are in life, whether you’re 25, 45 or 65. I do think you have to sort of want to seek somebody out.”
Most people want to help when asked, and they’re often honored to do so. It can feel rewarding to know you helped someone. But these people are also very busy, and their time is valuable.
So, respect their boundaries and their time. Ask questions. Small talk is fine, Miller said, but don’t waste the precious time a mentor spends with you. Mentorships aren’t permanent. When they end, express your appreciation, look to stay in touch, and see if you can help out your mentor down the road.
Beyond that, thankfully, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for mentoring. For example, ou can have more than one mentor. Mentoring can be formal within an organization, or it can be informal.
“If you approach people in the right manner, you may get them.”
Miller has a personal example of why overcoming your uncertainty, your hesitation, and asking for help in the right way can pay dividends.
Many years ago, he had left a CEO job and was looking for the next opportunity. At the same time, his son was high school classmates and teammates with Rudy Giuliani’s son. Miller even knew Giuliani a bit.
And yet, Miller admitted, he was perhaps “a little embarrassed” to share with Giuliani that was looking for work and needed help. Miller pushed forward, asked for a meeting, and got 90 minutes or so with the then-mayor of New York City.
Giuliani “could have blown me off, and he didn’t,” Miller says. And the key point is that Giuliani was busy, a celebrity in his own way, and yet he made the time because someone asked him for help.
As Miller reiterated to me, being asked for help is flattering, even if you might not want to start the conversation by asking someone to be your mentor.
Instead, try giving a clear request and a wide window. Using me as an example, Miller said:
“James, I would love to get your advice about the media business, if you ever get a chance. Any way we can connect at some point in time, maybe in the month of May?”
This conveys your interest while giving the person a wide berth. “It’s hard to say ‘no’ for over 30 days,” Miller said.
Take the risk
Not every request will work out, but if you have a plan, have goals and are honest about the advice you seek, it’s worth the risk, Miller says.
“People will enjoy mentoring you if you ask them appropriately and have a positive relationship, and maybe a positive game plan and be respectful of their time. … At the same time, whether you’re extroverted or introverted, asking for a mentor is no different than asking for help on any level.”
Why should I mentor?
Let’s flip the perspective to the mentor side. Mentoring creates many benefits, but there’s also a responsibility here, Miller said. “We, as the so-called older generation … we’ve all had some form of mentoring, and we owe it to people.”
Mentoring also fulfills a key need of most people, particularly millennials. “People want connection and constant learning and satisfaction and feeling a sense of connection and purpose, millennials more than most,” Miller told me.
Strategically, mentoring can be a smart move for executives and organizations. Miller is an advisor to boards, and the benefit of mentoring is clear there, as boards are always in danger of becoming disconnected from what’s going on. This is especially true for board members who want to do more than work on the budget, Miller told me.
“I actually don’t bring it up enough, but board members, I do try to encourage them to be mentors to the senior team and staff.”
Reverse mentoring is another potential benefit. The obvious example is technological expertise from younger people, though that’s not necessarily the only thing older people can learn from the younger generations.
Finally, mentoring can remind executives of their journey and their humble beginnings. As Miller told me:
“Some people can forget. If you got to the corner office, you can forget. You know, you didn’t get there all on your brains and your looks there, buddy. Someone mentored you along the way. So I always give back, and I think it’s satisfying, personally.”