Top 10 Tips for Choosing a Mentor

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

I sincerely believe that every successful person needs a stream of mentors in their lives, so that their fire is continuously kindled. And it was to my own mentors that I went for inspiration for my own moral dilemma when Channel 4 recently asked me to run a three-year business degree in three months, getting students to pass the exam at the end of the show. That got my thinking about what my mentors represented to me and why I chose them. Here are my top 10 tips for choosing a mentor:

1. You should consider their moral code to be unimpeachable
Drawing by Anna Grudeva (@grudevaa), who also drew the featured image

Every decision that you make does two things; it reinforces and it reflects your values.

As I was making the decision on whether to take the Channel 4 documentary, one of the first mentors I turned to was Lynette Murphy. She used to run Bucks and no one has a bad word to say about her. That’s rare for a teacher, I can tell you! Lynette asked me two very pertinent questions. Would I be proud of the quality of education that the students in the show received? Would the show represent my values for putting the learner first, or would I be kowtowing to the needs of entertaining television?

2. They should make no claim to greatness

I am very blessed to know so many truly great people; Lords, Knights of the Realm, Captains of Industry, Stars of Stage and Screen. All of them are so very well grounded, humble and unassuming.

Arrogance is a weakness disguised as a strength. I don’t need to learn from this group, and I suggest that you don’t either.

3. You should not be related to them

When faced with a choice, I am not advocating that you shouldn’t discuss it with your family. After all, after you, they are the ones most affected by your decisions. Nevertheless, this is precisely the reason why family members make terrible mentors.

My wife, Rachel, is every shade of wonderful and wise. She is a fantastic mentor to a number of very lucky mentees, and I share everything with her. She is my everything.

But I would never make a decision based on her reaction. Family members bring baggage to a journey, advising from their vested position.

Rachel and I chose each other because we share common values and I know that if I make my decision based on those values then I will always be true to myself, and to my family.

4. They should not benefit from you financially

I am aghast at how many companies run mentoring programs, pairing up colleagues from the same organisation. The role of a mentor is not to ask What’s in it for me? or What’s in it for us? But What’s in it for you?

I had a dinner party a few weeks ago, where Daniele, co-founder of Creative Social, and my speaking agent were both invited. The subject of the Channel 4 show was discussed and my speaking agent was arguing that I should grab the opportunity. Of course he was! It would ramp up my fees and his commission! I took everything he said with a pinch of salt.

5. You should be willing to share your most private thoughts with them

Whenever I spend a few hours with one of my mentors, it is a bit like therapy. We talk about how I am feeling and how I would like to feel. We talk about my fears and desires.

They never judge or preach. They just have the knack of asking the right questions, knowing it will lead to me finding the right answers.

One of my mentors asked me what was holding me back from grabbing the television opportunity with both hands and squeezing every drop of value from the publicity. When I told him my reasons, he poured another glass of wine and told me that I knew what to do.

6. They should not impart wisdom on any matters where they lack experience

This is quite self-explanatory and connects with many of the previous rules. However I would like to share a very quick anecdote about some wisdom about running the school that I took from a session with one of my mentors, Sir John Hegarty.

John was one of the first to support me in opening SCA and I shared a lot of my private thoughts with him. In one session I asked him for words of advice. I leaned forwards with my pen in one hand and a Moleskin in the other. He leaned back and rubbed his chin, reflected for a moment and then, in a whisper, he told me that I should take half the intake that I had projected for the first couple of years.

Teaching half as many students as I had planned would have serious financial repercussions, so I asked him to expand on his advice.

He told me that I was embarking on a craft – teaching – and that I should learn my craft before taking on a bigger, more challenging brief.

Some wisdom is transferrable. John has never run a school, but it was the best advice I received in the year before opening SCA.

7. You should be able to challenge their advice

There is no ego in the room when I engage with one of my mentors and debate is encouraged. I find that when I am challenging advice, I am really asking myself the important questions in pursuit of the right answers.

On the journey towards deciding whether or not to take the Channel 4 opportunity, one of my mentors advised me not to do it if I didn’t have editorial control. I challenged him, saying that no one ever had editorial control on a show like this. He raised an eyebrow. I asked a few questions, which led to my final decision.

8. They should welcome you to challenge their advice

Mentoring is not about one person telling another what to do; it is about working things out together. It is active, not passive.

9. You should be willing to take their advice as definitive

I include this rule because something brought you to your mentor, and because, however difficult or uncomfortable it is to hear, you know their advice to be true.


10. If you are unable to take their advice, then move on.

I have been to see mentors to work things out in my mind, only to find myself less certain after the session. Their advice didn’t seem right.

When this happens, I suggest that you let go of the mentor/mentee relationship and find new mentors in your life. Mentoring is fluid and you should be constantly on the lookout for new mentors who can help you on your journey.

Which brings me to my three tips in finding mentors;

Tip 1 – Make Connections

Illustration by Chris Kasch

Meet as many people as possible, from all walks of life and from as many diverse industries as possible.

Tip 2 – Deep Connections

Decide which of your connections you would like to know better, and get to know their values.

Tip 3 – Pay Mentors With News

All a mentor ever wants is to know what happened after you spent time together. They want to know the next chapter in your story. Keeping them updated is how they like to be paid. So let them know.

How my mentors helped me decide what to do about Channel 4

My mentors helped me to make my decision about the television show. I couldn’t do something that I wasn’t proud of; I wouldn’t be involved in a project that short-changed students and I didn’t like the idea of not being in control.

But I loved the idea of taking a swipe at the university system.

So I told the production company that I would only do the show on my terms. I felt that the idea of doing a three year degree in three months was made purely for a snappy headline, and that a sensationalist show wouldn’t help to support the central argument that Channel 4 wanted to make – that the way in which universities educate is fundamentally wrong.

I dropped my bombshell on Channel 4 last week; panic emails flew backwards and forwards. They promised to get back to me with a decision. I’m still waiting, but I won’t hold my breath.

Whatever they decide, I thank my mentors for being my guiding light.

Marc is one of the authors of our new book – Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief: Advertising’s next generation which is now available on Amazon

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