One of my core beliefs is that learning is everything — although you’d never know it from my resumé. It shows that I’m a two-time dropout without a diploma to my name. School and I first went separate ways in 1989, when I left high school one course shy of graduation. Then I talked my way into business school — and dropped out in 1993 with just a year to go. My reasoning: I was learning a lot more about business by running one than by studying the topic in books and listening to lectures.
Still, I’d always dreamed of earning an MBA. Knowing a school was unlikely to give me one, I created my own kind of MBA. I call it my Mentor Board of Advisors, and it has become my most treasured resource.
My MBA is a virtual advisory board I’ve assembled over the past 12 years. More than 600 people belong to it. For the most part, each mentor is someone I might turn to for advice as many as three times a year, or only once every few years. However, I have some mentors with whom I’ve never spoken, but whose help I think I will need someday. I contact just about everyone I add to my list at least once.
I’ve earned my one-of-a-kind MBA simply by approaching the most qualified experts on any given topic and asking for their help. Although it usually takes numerous attempts to make contact, once I have a potential mentor on the line, I don’t lose them. In fact, my success rate is 95%. Why do so few people turn me down? Most successful people have themselves asked for help and have a desire to return the favour by helping those who genuinely want to learn. I also think successful people aren’t approached for their advice as often as you might think, because most of us assume they’re overwhelmed with requests and will reject ours. (One popular author told me he rarely hears from his readers.) So when potential mentors receive your call, they’re probably not going to be perturbed by it.
I find my mentors by using Google. I get clear on what I am looking for, Google the topic, identify the experts and learn a lot more about them before making contact. These experts are busy and so am I, so I want to make sure that I’m asking the right person for help.
You’re probably wondering who’s on my MBA. I’ve turned to ex-Stanford professor and Good to Great author Jim Collins to better understand the levers for creating an enduring brand. Michael Gerber, author of The E-Myth Revisited: Why most small businesses don’t work and what to do about it, is who turned me on to franchising as a growth model. Michael’s studies of some of the greatest brands in world, including McDonald’s and Disney, convinced him that franchising is what allowed these businesses to scale up at a rapid yet controlled pace.
Both Jim and Michael were very willing to share their knowledge with me the first time I contacted them. So was Fred DeLuca, the co-founder of sandwich giant Subway.
Fred is the mentor I call whenever I need to better understand the inner workings of the franchising model, such as how to sell franchises and how to support franchisees. I first approached him in 2000 at a franchising conference in San Diego. He was my hero. I told him how much I loved his story and how I could really use his help since no one had ever franchised in the junk-removal industry. As Fred and I talked, I learned that we had both started our businesses as teenagers, and that he, too, was the first to franchise in his industry. I believe that shared experience is what led Fred to say, “Here’s my cellphone number-call me anytime.” I learned a valuable lesson that day: find common ground with your potential mentors. It’s likely that they’ve faced very similar challenges.
I believe that you can turn to a mentor for just about any important decision or challenge you face. Just before I rebranded my company from The Rubbish Boys to 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, I called Al Ries, the author of The Fall of Advertising & the Rise of PR and The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. I wanted to ensure that my new company name obeyed his 22 laws. Al told me it did, and 1-800-GOT-JUNK? was off to the races.
One of my rules of business travel is to visit a mentor in every city. It creates regular opportunities for learning. My visits could incorporate a company tour, getting feedback on a new idea or exchanging best practices over lunch. On my last trip, I visited the president and chief operating officer of Bell Canada, George Cope, whom I admire greatly. George was one of the founders of Clearnet Communications, which was acquired in 2000 by Telus for $6.6 billion. He is someone I turn to when I want to understand rapid growth and how to build a company through great people and exceptional leadership.
I recently hired an executive assistant. Who did I turn to prior to my search for a top-notch EA? To the world’s best, of course: Maureen Chant, the executive assistant to billionaire Jimmy Pattison of The Jim Pattison Group. Maureen has been with Jimmy for 43 years, and the company wouldn’t have become what it is without her. She is inside Jimmy’s head every day and has helped him build one of Canada’s largest privately held companies, with 28,000 employees and sales of more than $6 billion last year.
I’ve learned more from my Mentor Board of Advisors than I ever could have learned from books or from school. So earn your own MBA. It’s the best education money can’t buy.