Learning By Observing

megan quinn

Yesterday Andy Grove, the venerable CEO and Chairman of Intel, passed away and we in Silicon Valley mourned our loss. I didn’t know Andy, and he didn’t know me. I was getting into the tech industry in 2003 just as he was retiring. But, I learned a lot from him.

Andy was a master of management and — perhaps more importantly — a clear and insightful communicator of his management doctrine. Where many management books speak in opaque, big picture truisms, Andy’s books are specific, actionable, replicable. My former partner John Doerr has a stack of Andy’s “High Output Management” books outside his office which he hands our liberally to visiting entrepreneurs and executives. My friend Keith Rabois can rattle off specific chapters of the same book, as well as “Swimming Across” and “Only the Paranoid Survive,” that he believes are equally must-reads. And so I’ve read Andy’s words and practiced his lessons and have been a better manager and executive because of them. He’s been a mentor, of sorts.

I am frequently asked about mentors — whether I have any, who they are, whether everyone should have them, how to find them, how to utilize them, what a mentor even is, really. I have long held the same view: mentors are critical, and anyone you admire for their sound judgement and work ethic can be a mentor. A mentor doesn’t need to be someone you meet over coffee every week to share your deepest problems. They don’t have to be older, they don’t have to be your best friend — they don’t even have to know you. In this era of frequent, transparent public communication, I believe almost anyone can act as a mentor. You just have to pay close attention. You have to observe.

Take for example, Marissa. Marissa is a mentor of mine. I have worked for her, traveled around the world with her, and still occasionally socialize with her — but I don’t call her every week for feedback on my latest decision or thinking. She hasn’t given me career guidance or helped me talk through a particular problem in years. But, she’s a mentor. I follow the decisions she makes, I read her interviews, I see who she hires, I follow her writing — in short, I observe. And through observation, I learn.

Of course it’s good guidance to have mentors who are squarely on your team, who meet with you occasionally and who have your particular interests in mind. There are precious few people who can give you their most valuable possession — time. But we are fortunate to live in an era where the best business leaders, the most insightful strategists, the most productive creators are more or less a click away. We are surrounded by potential mentors. We just have to observe.

megan quinn

Written by

General Partner at Spark. Previously: Investment Partner at Kleiner Perkins, built products for people @Square & @Google. I'm told I talk fast.

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