Be a Men-tern: Both a Mentor & Intern at the Same Time…

I am just back from 2 ½ days at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference at the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts on the edge of the Presidio National Park in San Francisco. Even though we had rain on and off all three days, it was a beautiful setting for a weekend of unplugging and getting in touch with ourselves and others… The intent of the conference, according to founder Soren Gordhamer, is to “explore ancient wisdom in modern life”; to bring our “inner world consciousness into our external presence” for better mental fitness…

Starting off with morning group meditation, I set my day up to be able to be present and learn from and with amazing speakers and groups: from the latest applied research on interpersonal neurobiology in relationships by Dr. Dan Siegel to doing “The Work” with Byron Katie; from the heart-wrenching, as well as heart-warming, stories from the writer and singer Jewel to the funny and very accessible body-positive EveryBody Yoga with Jessamyn Stanley.

Of the dozens of sessions I attended (and the many dozens I couldn’t make it to), one session by Joie de Vivre founder and former CEO, Chip Conley, now Head of Hospitality and Leadership at Airbnb, particularly stood out for me. His session on “The Modern Elder” struck me right in the midst of my own current transition: what is next and how best to manifest that?

Chip started JdV when he was 26 and ran it for 24 years before selling his 50 hotels in 2010. What’s next for someone who had done so well and accomplished so much at a relatively young age? When the founders of Airbnb came to him and asked if he’d help them democratize hospitality, Chip chose to simultaneously became both a mentor, like Harry Hart in The Kingsman, AND an intern, like the DeNiro character in the movie of the same name. What was his advice to successfully navigate the new normal for those of us in the second half of our careers?

  1. The ability to forget historical parts of yourself: Chip had to be able to come from a whole new place when working with founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia; he could not act like a 50-something CEO who had been at the helm for a quarter-century. In meetings, he had to be a beginner again, remain curious and listen without ego in order to be successful.
  2. Create new trade agreements: As Daniel Goleman, who literally wrote the book on Emotional Intelligence, claimed, leadership success is not solely determined by IQ and experience (only 1/3 of the equation), but is more influenced by EQ (Emotional Intelligence, the other 2/3). Chip suggested that wise elders can provide needed EQ guidance that can help others all over the company learn, grow and progress, while we gain new digital smarts from those we advise.
  3. Always Be Learning (ABL): The old mantra was ABC (Always Be Closing), but the way to contribute beyond what we already know is to be, as Chip says, “catalytically curious.” It is to ask “why” and “what if” questions, not “what” and “how.” Part of this is when and where we do our work; Chip’s best results came when he interned publicly (asking lots of Qs) and mentored privately (giving counsel and advice).
  4. Don’t just know how, but know who: As Chip related, a google search will generate thousands of results, but a librarian will know “just the right one.” Teams need the right folks to think with when faced with new problems, not just someone who can turn the screw for us. We want to make sure that we can play the role of air traffic controller and exquisitely route people to others who can be of help.

In the end, Chip did not just drop into this new role; he had to create a good amount of space after selling JdV and decompressing. In creating that needed space to think and contemplate what’s next, interesting things tend to show up. Wisdom will never go out of style, since it is based on experience and pattern recognition; the key is to be clear about what you have to offer in order to remain relevant to the market.

As Juniper Networks Chairman, Scott Kriens told us during his Sunday morning kickoff on Authentic Relationships, “people don’t want to know what you know until they know who you are.” Make sure that you are willing to be vulnerable and build trust with the new folks that you are working with before showing up like the Sage of the Six Paths.

In the end, we should plan on being more like a fine wine that gets better over time rather than a bottle of milk with an expiration date stamped on the side. To do so, are you ready to be a Men-tern? Regardless of your age or experience level, what can you give now and what is next for you to learn?

[Bonus: The closing keynote by ABC newsman Dan Harris (10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge) was a hilarious discussion of what he found to be the top 8 reasons that people gave him during his research into why people don’t meditate. I’ll post the video once its up, but there are many other of his talks already on YouTube and this one hosted at Google.]