November 23, 2022

Can’t find a business mentor? Try the ‘Rule of 10’ instead

Jyoti Bansal
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Can’t find a business mentor? Try the ‘Rule of 10’ insteadCan’t find a business mentor? Try the ‘Rule of 10’ instead
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When I was in my late twenties, I started my first company — one that would ultimately grow into a tech unicorn, with hundreds of employees and hundreds of millions in annual sales. But first, I had to reckon with an existential challenge: I didn’t know what I was doing.

As an engineer-turned-first-time entrepreneur, I had serious holes in my skill set. I desperately needed a mentor, but as a recent immigrant and an unproven founder, my options were limited.

The success of my company was riding on the speed and quality of my decisions regarding everything from development to sales and distribution, so I came up with a different strategy. I call it my Rule of 10.

The premise is simple: ask 10 intelligent people with different perspectives and levels of experience to weigh in on your problem, then leverage their collective wisdom to develop innovative solutions. As I’ve grown as a leader, I don’t need to ask quite so many people to develop the expertise I’m seeking, but the principles remain the same.

This approach was vital in building back-to-back unicorns — but it can work for leaders at every level, from solopreneurs to enterprises.

Here’s why I use the Rule of 10 and how it works.

The limits of traditional mentorship

As a first-time entrepreneur launching a small company, I couldn’t just call up the foremost experts on AI or marketing and get them to mentor me. Even now, when so many more doors are open to me, it’s still challenging to find one person who can answer all my pressing questions. I’m not alone.

Just over half the respondents in one recent survey said they’d never had a mentor. Of those who had, only 14% secured the relationship by asking. The fact is, it’s tough to convince another person to invest so heavily in your success. Even if you do, it’s unlikely they will have all the knowledge you need.

Perhaps that’s why mentoring tends to yield modest benefits under the best circumstances. Additionally, those relationships can quickly stagnate or fall apart. Personal advisory boards, a popular alternative where professionals curate their own “panel” of advisors, come with downsides like scheduling conflicts and conflicting opinions.

But there is an alternative. Rather than seeking out a fixed mentor relationship — with all the demands on time and energy that entails — think more like a researcher or investigative journalist. Clearly identify your problem. Then focus on queuing up short, focused conversations to gain needed insight — fast.

10 brains are better than one

When I was building my first company, AppDynamics, I wasn’t sure how to price our products — so I started asking around. I talked with sales specialists who filled me in on the standard options. I ran those options past product folks. I folded in their input when I spoke with current and former CEOs of other companies. I ran my ideas past an engineer to get feedback from an astute and invested outsider.

By the time I had talked with 10 informed people, I had a holistic perspective on the issue and was able to reach the right decision. Of course, my approach here isn’t radically new — leaders who don’t make informed decisions don’t tend to stick around for very long — but it does systematize a useful practice and ensure I’m considering every important angle.

One of my favorite things about the Rule of 10 is that it’s iterative. You’re not seeking a majority opinion but surfacing ideas and insight from each conversation until you have a complete understanding of the options. Each step of bringing what you learn to the next person helps clarify your thinking and provides a feedback loop. As you continue down this knowledge spiral you become — if not an expert — then at least highly competent on topics you once knew little about.

There’s another key virtue: the Rule of 10 actually encourages innovation. Rather than repeating what’s worked before, I can build new ways of doing things by crowdsourcing information tailored to my specific situation. Not to mention, it’s also an exceptionally efficient way to get up to speed. Done right, this approach condenses a lifetime of learning into a few focused conversations.

A few rules for following the rule of 10

Of course, you can’t just choose 10 random people and hope they’ll magically lead you to the correct answers. The Rule of 10 requires thoughtful consideration of who you approach and how you do it.

First, look for a broad base — a mix of insiders and outsiders, newcomers with fresh perspectives, and seasoned pros with subject-matter experience. You may find them in places you would not generally think of — front-line employees, academics, job applicants, family members, or friends. My only rule is that the people I ask are generally smarter than me.

When asking for their insight, be respectful of their time by keeping to agreed-upon time limits and doing your homework first so you can immediately get down to meatier questions. This is especially true for subject matter experts who get a lot of requests for their insight. Often, I save those conversations for last, after I’ve built up a good understanding of the basics so we can have a two-way discussion with both parties gaining valuable information.

When you start hearing the same concepts repeated or realize you now know more than some of the people you are interviewing, you’re ready to take action.

Using the Rule of 10 can be an intellectually humbling experience. It’s not always easy playing the student when you’re supposed to be in charge. But the job of leaders is to make good decisions, and you can’t do that in a vacuum. I still don’t always make the right call, but the Rule of 10 has taken me from a 50% success rate to about 80%, and I never stop learning as I go.

Jyoti Bansal is a multi-unicorn founder, investor, and co-founder of Unusual Ventures. He is the CEO of Harness, which uses AI to simplify software delivery. This article was originally published on FastCompany.

Photo by Andre Ravazzi for Unsplash

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