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How to Pick a Mentor: Take a Cue From Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt

Have you ever considered getting a business coach?

Apple's Steve Jobs and Google's Eric Schmidt are archrivals in the mobile phone wars, yet they share one thing in common: They both rely on Bill Campbell as a mentor, and at times a coach.

Campbell is the former CEO of Intuit (now chairman of the board) and he did precisely what Jobs and Schmidt are doing now: building a publicly traded consumer-oriented technology company.

When I was starting my marketing agency, I asked Ted Matthews to be my coach. Ted was in the midst of growing PROMANAD into a successful marketing agency, which he ultimately sold before turning his attention to writing his book, Brand: It Ain't the Logo.

Although I sought out Ted's advice on business strategy, he also became a shoulder for me in dealing with the loneliness of leadership. As the entrepreneur and sole owner of a company, I had to make unpopular decisions. Not wanting to reveal my insecurity to employees, I would seek out Ted for a pep talk.

I remember one day when I had to fire a popular but incompetent employee. Everyone in my company was sad to see this fun-loving individual go. I wanted the approval of my employees, but I knew I couldn't turn inward for validation, so I went to see Ted.

Ted put his arm around my shoulder and told me about some of the people he had had to let go in building his company. After 30 minutes with Ted, I felt rejuvenated and ready to go back to work. And that's the thing about business coaches: Their support can give you someone with whom to commiserate -- without undermining your authority to lead your team.

So how do you find a business coach? My suggestion is to look for someone who has done what you're attempting to do. My aspiration was to build a marketing company and sell it. Ted had done what I wanted to do. Like Steve Jobs, Bill Campbell had led a company in which the engineers wanted to make things complex while customers preferred easy-to-use products. Campbell successfully balanced those two constituencies at Intuit and, therefore, makes a good coach for Jobs.

Eric Schmidt led Google from entrepreneurial leadership under Sergey Brin and Larry Page to an era of professional management while Brin and Page were still in the building. Likewise, Bill Campbell led Intuit while founder Scott Cook was still actively involved in the company. Campbell found a way to involve Cook without undermining his own authority to lead. Therefore, I think Schmidt has made a good choice in selecting Campbell as his coach.

Who is your shoulder?

(photo courtesy of Flickr/pupismyname)
John Warrillow is the author of Built to Sell: Turn Your Business into One You Can Sell. He has started and exited four companies and was named one of America's most influential marketers by BtoB Magazine in 2008. Think you can sell your business? Take the Sellability Index Quiz. Follow him on Twitter @JohnWarrillow Become a fan on Facebook