The best advice I’ve ever received

There are tons of articles out there about the importance of having a mentor. Today many organizations focusing on youth development set up formal programs to pair students as young as 12 or 13 with an older, wiser role model. It would be a mistake, however, to think that you don’t need a mentor once your career takes off. At every stage of your professional life, there will be plenty of situations and unexpected events that can leave you reeling. This is true regardless of the career path you have chosen.

Smart professionals surround themselves with even smarter colleagues who can provide advice and support when it is time to make difficult decisions.

Good mentors have been crucial to my own success. I have had a long and successful career as a health care executive, a nonprofit leadership coach and an entrepreneur. But the odds were against me when I started out.

At the age of 20, I checked myself into a psychiatric institution and began the long road to recovery from depression. I had managed to graduate at the bottom of my high school class and couldn’t even pay a four-year college to admit me. When I was 24, my abusive father threw me out of the house. I lived at the YMCA and a boarding house with other transients, supporting myself by cleaning bathrooms at the local motor inn. Still, I had a vision of my life that included a leadership role in the business world.

My mentors helped me overcome my personal hurdles, so that I could earn an education and work my way through various positions in the health care industry. With their support, at the age of 49 I was appointed president and CEO of a major medical center.

I didn’t abandon the idea of mentorship at that point, however. There have been many times since then when I have reached out to colleagues to talk through a particularly thorny problem or challenging situation.

A good mentor will help you stay motivated and reduce your mistakes. Here is some of the best mentor advice that I have received over the years:

  • Don’t ask for a job. Ask for advice. This came from one of my first mentors and proved to be invaluable because if you straight up ask someone for a job, they’ll be thinking about how they can tell you no. If you ask for advice, they’re more likely to want to help. At the very least, they can introduce you to other valuable connections.
  • Be confident enough to challenge yourself to get the job you really want, rather than the job you know you can do with your eyes closed. My wife provided this excellent bit of guidance when I was in the middle of a career change.
  • Depression is not a character flaw. For me, knowing this made all the difference in the world. Depression can result from life trauma, loss or grief and/or biochemistry. The stress of launching or leading a company can aggravate the symptoms, making it impossible to navigate otherwise straightforward decisions and tasks. This is bad for you, bad for your employees, and bad for your company.Clear thinking, productive relationships, and positive energy are critical to any successful enterprise.
  • Happy people are more likely to be successful, but successful people are not always happy. This has helped me to keep my priorities in order so that I never risked the things that were most important to me—family, friends, and health—for the sake of career.
  • Sometimes, you have to learn to ride a bicycle while you’re still building it. In your life and your career, there will be times when you just can’t wait for all of the planets to align before you move forward. Make sure you reach out to your mentors as you head into the storm!

I doubt I would have achieved all that I have without the help of my mentors. Now that I’ve got a good bit of life experience myself, I really enjoy mentoring others. It is my way of honoring the people who were so generous to me over the years.

Dennis C. Miller is the author of Moppin’ Floors to CEO: From Hopelessness and Failure to Happiness and Success and is a nationally recognized strategic leadership coach with more than 30 years of experience. The former CEO of Somerset Medical Center and Healthcare Foundation, Miller now works with leaders of nonprofit organizations and is an expert in board governance, leadership development and succession planning. Contact him at [email protected]