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My big brother (the mentor) is watching me

By Glenn Burkins
Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of, an online news site targeting CharlotteĀ’s African American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Charlotte Observer business editor.

Because of an eight-year age gap, my brother and I weren’t close growing up. But a curious thing happened after I started a business: He became the MVP on my team of mentors.

Was I surprised?

Somewhat. But looking back, Robert embodies many of the qualities that business books say we should look for when building a team of advisors.

He cares. Because he is my brother, perhaps, Robert has a genuine interest in me that goes beyond my needs as a small business owner.

Anyone who has launched a startup knows how draining the journey can be. Where do we go when our bodies ache and our minds turn to jelly from lack of sleep? A good mentor understands that a human lives and breathes behind a company’s name. My talks with Robert aren’t simply about the debits and credits; he also encourages me to care for my mental and physical state.

He has a track record. Although Robert knows little about my industry, he is a veteran manager experienced in building organizations.

As business owners, we sometimes assume that our best mentors will be those with first-hand knowledge of the work we do. Sometimes, yes. But far more vital is choosing those with records of success. Some of my best guidance has come from mentors with little knowledge of how my industry works. This seems to free them from traditional thinking.

He is constantly asking questions. No matter what we discuss, Robert is never quick to offer an opinion.

Call me contrarian, but I’ve never trusted the advice of those who offer it too freely. Before a mentor can dispense good counsel, he or she must first understand a full range of issues that confronts the business owner. That understanding can come only by asking questions. A strategy that seems foolish at first may make perfect sense once an advisor is armed with full knowledge. Better yet, good questions leveled by a skilled mentor allow the business owner an opportunity to figure it out.

He takes his role seriously. No matter how busy Robert may be, I never feel shortchanged after we have talked.

Let’s face it, mentors are busy, too. That’s probably why they are desired as mentors by other busy people. But if a mentor-mentee relationship is to work, the adviser must find time to listen, question and advise. This requires commitment. I’ve often been amazed by the amount of time Robert has spent studying documents I have sent him or listing to my concerns before peppering me with probing questions.

Our talks are reciprocal. People who teach mentoring say the best relationships are not one-way.

As much time as I spend talking to Robert about my concerns, we probably spend an equal amount of time discussing his. Why is this important? Because I learn more from listening than I do from talking. When I listen to others talk about the problems they face at work or in their businesses, it often provides a window into my situations. A give-and-take also makes the mentoring relationship richer.

Not all mentoring relationships are formal or pre-arranged. It might surprise my brother to know that I even consider him a mentor. The same could be said for other mentors I have.

In addition to my brother, I have stocked my mentoring team with a range of talent, each bringing a different perspective to his or her role as one of my business advisors.

Some have the industry-specific knowledge I need. Others are good listeners. Some can help me think strategically, for the long haul. Others are good at solving specific problems. I even seek out mentors who aren’t afraid to say “no, don’t do that.”

When I put them all together and all have weighed in, I feel more confident in the decisions I make.

Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of, a news site for Charlotte’s African-American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Observer business editor.
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