New innovations and unexpected ideas are transforming the world, creating a landscape that is both extremely exciting and challenging for start-ups. In this environment, having a good mentor can make or break a growing business: research shows that mentored small businesses are twice as likely to survive for more than five years than non-mentored small businesses.[i]
I was fortunate to have several role models from across business, government and more who taught me a lot of important lessons throughout my career. These lessons helped me lead Cisco through significant market transitions, staying ahead of the curve while competitors fell behind. I’ve been committed to paying it forward by sharing knowledge with others throughout my career and even more so today by mentoring colleagues and young entrepreneurs in the Valley, and around the world.
To me, there’s nothing more energizing than being around entrepreneurs who are using technology to change our world. While any start-up is bound to have challenges and make mistakes, part of the fun in being an advisor is helping them navigate through these moments. Recently, I’ve had several meetings with members of India’s Innovators Under 35 list from MIT Technology Review. Throughout the course of our conversations, I’ve found that they have many of the same questions as other leaders I mentor. Here are some of the most common questions I get from start-ups, and my key pieces of advice for today’s leaders:
How do you stay agile?
I often tell leaders to make sure their key stakeholders understand that agility is critical to their success. Whether you’re talking about how you adjust to markets or take business risk, you need to be nimble to innovate. Agility is something that both start-ups and established companies need to do very well to get ahead and stay ahead. At Cisco, we’ve stayed agile by always being willing to reinvent ourselves ahead of our peers. My advice to my mentees is to have the courage to pivot before everyone else catches on. If you wait until it’s obvious, it’ll be too late. I also tell them to stay close to their customers – what keeps them up at night is the best indication of when it’s time to move into new areas.
What’s the most important quality of a successful leader?
Great leaders have many qualities in common, but I think the most important is having a vision. Whether you’re creating your overall strategy, considering an acquisition or developing a new product, you must always ask yourself, “What does this mean for the future?” Leaders with a vision aren’t afraid of the future. Instead, they view the future as an opportunity to grow, innovate, and continue to redefine themselves and their companies to achieve more.
How do you identify and engage the right mentors?
I always look for a mentor who challenges me to think long-term about the future and to dream big. It’s a mentor’s job to not only share advice, but to also listen and help you build the confidence you need to succeed. Generally, I find that the best advisors fall into two groups – the mature generations of government and industry leaders, family, etc. and the younger generations of twenty-somethings and start-up leaders. Each will challenge you in different ways, offering unique perspectives, expertise, and experience. We all have something to learn from each other, so take advantage of every opportunity to do so. When you find the right mentor, ask, “When can I see you again?” Keep the dialogue open so that you’re constantly learning.
All in all, being a mentor is much like being a parent. You’re invested in growing someone else’s future, and you want the same or more for them than what you had. Our mentees will be the ones to change the world, and we must invest in them today to see what’s possible for our future.