Looking for mentors in all the wrong places

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We’ve all been encouraged to find mentors and sponsors to develop our business and leadership skills, right? For me, those types of relationships were rather elusive during the first 10 years of my career.

Eventually, I realized I was looking in the wrong places. I thought mentors and sponsors were supposed to be people like me, in the same field of work as me — other lawyers, and more specifically other female lawyers — or sources of business, people who could refer customers to me. I tried reaching out to two female judges in my local Bar Association and tried engaging established female attorneys and executives in town, but never found a professional sponsor in my field.

In a curious change of circumstances a few years ago, I connected with two people who were not in my profession and had zero potential to refer clients to me. One was our city’s chief of police and one was an environmental guru. In the course of a few really great conversations, I made significant connections with each of them and afterward they took it upon themselves, without my having to ask, to talk to their contacts about me and did some investigating to help me navigate the path to my new goal. Their insight was invaluable to where I am today.

There were three important lessons I realized through these two specific relationships.

One: Never write someone off or assume they have a narrow point of view just because of their job title. True visionaries, servant leaders — your next sponsor — might be working completely outside of your industry or supply chain. Pay close attention to people who listen to your ideas, regardless of that person’s status. If your ideas ignite a spark with someone, blow on it. If it lights up, toss some fuel on the fire and stand close to soak up the heat. Together you can come from different sides of the fire to fan the flames.

Two: Always seek common ground. Although successful sponsorships can happen across disciplines, the foundation of all relationships (professional or otherwise) is the thing you have in common. That thing might not be your profession but a personal interest, your values, conversation style, or a shared experience. If you’re interested in someone and want to fuel the spark between you, listen to them closely and think of them when you’re researching your own goals. When you find something that aligns with their interests, reach out and offer to help them. When you are genuinely interested in someone or something, be mindful of that magnetism. Let it pull you forward.

Three: Not every spark will ignite. Not every person you’re interested in getting to know will reciprocate. Successful mentorships are mutually beneficial. Some people are disappointingly narrow-minded and/or self-interested. Don’t waste your time or energy chasing those people. The right people, the ones who will sponsor you without you having to ask, will do it because they believe in your ideas and embrace your mission. If you are genuinely seeking to give as much as you get from your mentors and sponsors, and if you identify the right people who care about the things you care about, then they will propel you forward eagerly.

Chemistry is that taboo thing you hear about on reality TV between couples on first dates, but it also is something that can accurately inform our professional connections, too. Pay attention to it. Your personal team of executive coaches and advisers should be individuals you get up early to meet for coffee on a Friday morning. Surround yourself with those people. The energy created by enough of those sparks will manifest in your flaming success.

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Kristi L. Kozubal
Kristi L. Kozubal, J.D., is regional director of the Great Lakes Bay Region for the Michigan Small Business Development Center, which is based at GVSU. She has over 15 years of experience working with small businesses, nonprofits and local governments, including 10 years as an attorney in private practice and three years as a community planner. Kozubal has developed curriculum and taught courses in the Master of Entrepreneurial Transactions program at Central Michigan University and is a licensed Michigan attorney. She holds a B.S. in architecture from the University of Michigan, a J.D. from the Michigan State University College of Law and a financial management certificate from Cornell University. Contact Kristi at 989.686.9597 or kristikozubal at delta dot edu.