5 Secrets to Being a Great Mentor—From Someone Mentored by the Best

6 minute read

The Encyclopedia of American Business History notes that Peter Drucker was not only “the most important managerial theorist of the 20th century” but also “a mentor to several generations” of executives.

Next week, with the release of Bob Buford’s Drucker & Me, readers will be offered a window into perhaps the deepest of those relationships. From it, there is much to learn.

The book recalls the friendship forged between Drucker, known as the “man who invented management,” and Buford, a cable television pioneer from Tyler, Texas, who later dedicated his considerable intellect and energy to social entrepreneurship and the building of America’s megachurch movement. (Royalties are being donated to the Drucker Institute, which I run.)

Buford’s narrative begins at the end of Drucker’s life, shortly before he died in 2005, at age 95, when Buford realizes that he has come to visit his friend for the last time. From there, after a short introduction to the significance and impact of Drucker’s work, Buford retraces the extraordinary connection that they built over 23 years.

It started with a letter that Buford wrote to Drucker, seeking his counsel on how to improve the performance of a business that was already growing fast. The next thing Buford knew, he was on his way to Drucker’s modest ranch house in Claremont, Calif., for a one-on-one meeting. Things blossomed quickly from there.

“In terms of friendship, we were an unlikely pairing,” Buford writes. “A generation apart in age. One of us spoke English with a heavy Austrian accent. The other spoke Texan. I owned a cable television company. Peter didn’t even own a television. . . . I followed the Dallas Cowboys. He followed Japanese art.”

Yet for all of these differences, the two clicked. Their sensibilities and worldview were totally in sync. “In Peter,” Buford explains, “I found a soul mate.”

In addition to being a charming read, Drucker & Me conveys many management lessons—on relentlessly providing what the customer values, on engaging in “planned abandonment,” on aligning people’s strengths with the work that they’re asked to undertake. But above all, the book is a wonderful guide on how to be a mentor, filled with useful takeaways. Here are five:

First, a model mentor doesn’t just give answers. In Drucker’s case, he had Buford write him a long letter before each of their sessions, ensuring that Buford had carefully thought through the challenges with which he was grappling. When they finally sat down together, Drucker would pepper Buford with questions.

“He wanted Bob to think for himself,” Jim Collins, for whom Drucker was also a mentor, observes in the foreword to Drucker & Me. “The greatest teachers begin with humility, a belief that only by first learning from their students can they be of greatest service to them.”

Second, a model mentor is always fully present, recognizing the tremendous trust he or she has been handed. “Whenever I was with him,” Buford recalls of Drucker, “he was focused. If the minister of Japan called, the minister would have to wait until my meeting ended.”

Third, a model mentor doesn’t shy away when the professional blends with the personal, understanding that someone’s career and the rest of his or her life are often intimately linked. On this score, Drucker & Me contains several dramatic turning points, including the drowning death of Buford’s 24-year-old son, Ross.

As soon as Drucker heard the terrible news, he phoned. “For the next several minutes, we had a very affectionate, compassionate, intensely personal conversation, and his sadness for my losing Ross almost seemed to match my own,” Buford writes. “And then he said something that was remarkable in its candor even as it echoed my own thoughts. ‘Isn’t it a shame that it takes this kind of moment for you and me to have the kind of conversation we just had?’”

Fourth, by truly listening, a model mentor can help introduce a level of clarity that would likely be unattainable otherwise. “Your mission, Bob, is to transform the latent energy of American Christianity into active energy,” Drucker told Buford eight years into their relationship. Writes Buford: “Just like that, he nailed it. He took my meandering thoughts . . . and articulated exactly what I wanted to do.” Indeed, this single insight from Drucker was the spark that Buford needed to create Leadership Network, a highly effective nonprofit that teaches church pastors how to multiply their own impact in the community.

Finally, a model mentor gives permission, encouragement and applause—but also demands accountability. “After a while,” Buford says, that “long rambling letter” he sent before each consulting session with Drucker “became my performance report. I’m not sure he would have allowed me access, at least in the early going, if I had no results.”

In his 1990 book Managing the Nonprofit Organization, Drucker credits two of his first bosses—one at a financial firm, the other at a newspaper—with being ideal mentors in their own right. “They were totally un-permissive and demanding. And they did not hesitate to chastise me,” Drucker recounted. “But they were willing to listen to me. They were sparing with praise, but always willing to encourage.”

Obviously, he learned well, exhibiting these very same traits with Buford. But so, in turn, did Buford learn well.

I know this firsthand. Although we, too, are from different worlds—I’m a Jewish guy from Baltimore, a generation younger than Buford, and much more a basketball than a football fan—we share many core values. And while I would never claim to be as close to Buford as he was with Drucker, his guidance and friendship have been indispensable. He has urged me, along with my staff, to sharpen the Drucker Institute’s mission, leading us to where we are today: “strengthening organizations to strengthen society.” He has pushed us to think bigger and aim higher.

Inc. magazine once called Peter Drucker “the North Star of mentors.” Bob Buford, I can attest, shines awfully bright himself.

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