July Mentor Resource - Activate Leadership by Jon Mertz


Activate Leadership by Jon Mertz

July Mentor Resource Recommendation


Jon Mertz has been a long time friend and supporter of The Mentoring Project. Recently, Jon  released a book focused on leadership and generational connection - it's geared toward Millennials specifically, but this is sure to be a book that brings older and younger generations together as they learn how to collaborate and tutor one another.  For this month's Mentor Resource, we feature his book Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. We asked Jon a series of questions related to mentoring, his latest book, and future goals.  Take a look below. 

  • What is/was your desire for this book - the initial goal/purpose and where is it headed (a companion study guide, discussion guide, videos, etc.)?

Writing Activate Leadership was inspired by bringing generations together to encourage and challenge Millennials. I was reading too many articles that were negative and really taking Millennials out of context. This was not the way to build future leaders.

My purpose with the book is to empower Millennial leaders by sharing my experiences and urging conversations between generations. Although Activate Leadership is written for Millennials, my hope is other generations will read the book and begin learning from each other. Sharing experiences will make us all stronger leaders.

Besides the book, I worked with a Millennial leader to write a discussion guide, and we will begin sharing this more very soon. My goal is to try a virtual book club discussion after Labor Day, using Google Hangout. Through this, I hope to encourage others to do the same.

We have a responsibility to support and challenge future leaders. We need to learn from each other and strengthen our leadership capabilities. This is the intent of Activate Leadership.

  • What do you think is the most important concept to grasp in your book?

Nature teaches. I never expected to learn something from aspen trees, but I did. In many ways, this is the big lesson to learn from Activate Leadership. We need to open our eyes and ears to the lessons of life and leadership that surround us. When we stop to absorb, think, and explore, we become better leaders.

Aspen trees deliver four leadership truths. Each stand on their own. Together, they can strengthen and empower our leadership capabilities.

Let me put it another way. Long after I am gone, aspen trees will continue to thrive. Aspens and nature deliver a system of respecting the past and doing the work to support the future. We need to tap into this system in our leadership thinking and actions. 

  • What's been the most life-changing concept for you personally?

Two have been particularly life-changing for me. The first is the concept of tempo, getting the right rhythm between pace and stride. Early in my career, I never really thought about the right tempo between the two and, even now, it is challenging to view patience as not waiting but wanting something better and then doing the work to get there. I need to continue to remind myself of this new patience.

The other is around the idea and requirement to create soul spark opportunities for others. For managers and leaders, this seems un-businesslike, yet it is essential to energize team members and empower their work to be meaningful and relevant to them and the larger purpose of the organization. Creating these soul spark moments in others is a leadership challenge to take, and one I need to continue to work on as well.

  • What experience(s) with mentors in your life growing up taught you the most about being a leader?

Maybe it is my Midwestern roots, but I have been a decent observer and reader. Although I always learned a lot from my bosses, I never really had a true mentor. 

My mentorship came from observing other leaders and learning what they did right and wrong. Since my early career was in politics, I loved reading biographies. Theodore Roosevelt and Georgia O’Keefe taught me a great deal. Theodore Roosevelt was so full of life and never afraid to drive change or undertake a great adventure. Georgia O’Keefe never cared too much for what others thought; she wanted to express her creative nature through her art. 

Reading newspapers is also a very every day mentoring practice. You read a story of someone making what seems to be an obvious bad choice, and you wonder “what were they thinking?” You dig into the story and find the moments where things went wrong. I try to learn from those moments, prevent them, and construct reminders to make choices differently. 

This is one of the reasons I love The Mentoring Project. You provide the training and the intersection to bring people together in a mentor relationship. Too many people go through life without a real mentor. We can use books, newspaper articles, and other relationships to create a mentor montage. However, having a person as a go-to individual to challenge, listen, and coach us is a wonderful life benefit. Thank you for creating this mentoring platform and opportunity for young leaders!

  • Can you talk more on reverse mentorship (you as the mentor) and the effect that has had on you?

Being a mentor sounds so formal, but it is just a conversational relationship in which you share trials and joys with someone. In the conversations, the goal is to help each other think about both in deeper ways. 

One particular experience highlights what happens when a team decides someone is not a fit. As a mentor, I really have to listen closely to the challenges and ask questions to enable him to dig deeper into what may be happening. There is a balance between making a decision based only on emotion and waiting for a more practical path forward to suddenly appear. Neither are good ways to decide what to do next.

My role is to ask questions, challenge him to consider other ways to navigate the situation, and encourage him to keep the faith, do the work, and evaluate better opportunities. My instinct is to jump in and try to correct the wrong, but I cannot. No one can really just jump in and do a quick change. Quick changes rarely work well. 

What I have learned through this process is this. Although life is unfair at times, we need to keep our common sense. More than this, we need to keep our self-worth and focus on what our purpose really is. This is tough to do in trying times, and this is where a community of mentors can really help. However, when we focus on the person we are and want to be, we begin to lift ourselves up again. When we lift ourselves up, our purpose gains clarity, and we begin to move toward that light. 

The distractions of the moment fade somewhat. We keep our pace while seeking that stride moment to move on.

  • What advice would you give to someone who is just entering the job field out of college about leadership -- how to respect it, how to develop it, how to handle it once it is granted?

I really view leadership as a craft. I used to think that reading leadership books was a waste of time. The reality is we can gain an idea or develop a new skill based on what others have learned or researched. Equally important is to read biographies and history. What better mentor than a good biography!

Good leadership respects the past and future. History has shown the mistakes we have made, along with the achievements. The future calls us to do better and lead with a growth mindset, meaning change is a necessity to move teams and organizations forward. To get this right, leaders need to understand their own philosophy and beliefs to be the calm in the storm but also set the direction when a shift is required.

We are all leaders in some form. We need to take this responsibility seriously but also remember to dance in the puddles and keep our creative spirit. 

For young leaders, the message is really one of honing your leadership craft. Never stop learning. Never stop trying to do good works in better ways.

  • You say that you like to run in the park, listen to your thoughts, and latch on to the ones that count - how do you know if a thought or an idea is something you should pursue? 

The quick answer is discernment. Discernment is interesting though as it is very difficult to define yet very useful. For me, discernment is having a strong connection between my heart and mind. We cannot let one or the other lead too much. 

When my heart and mind are energized by an idea, I know it is right one to pursue. If both churn, I know I need to investigate more. If my heart is at peace but my mind is restless, I know I need to learn more. If my mind is at peace but my heart is restless, I need to understand what is missing in my passion that has me off balance. 

Discernment is not procrastination. Discernment is taking the right amount of time to understand the right idea to pursue at the right time.

Running helps me sort this out. Quiet time in thought does, too, as does getting involved with initiatives that are aligned with the new idea. Life is never a straight path. We just need to engage our path fully.    

  • Once you know if an idea is worthy of pursuit, what is something you have had a champion level of engagement in and how did that turn out?

One idea that moved to Champion level engagement was the re-focus of Thin Difference about four years ago. I had begun to write more about leadership topics and hired a fresh college graduate at my fulltime work. I was nervous about blowing it as a leader, not giving this Millennial enough interesting projects to work on and losing her within six months. 

My work and outside interests came together. I read a lot about this new generation and became really excited about the shift that was unfolding and the traits that seem to be filled with purpose. Doing this created a strong sense of belief in me that we need to share experiences between generations and Millennials have an opportunity to be the next great generation of leaders. The Thin Difference shift began.

The shift entailed getting others to buy-in to the approach and demonstrate shared experiences on the site. Today, we have three Millennial writers and two other writers from the Gen X and Boomer generations. The growth of Thin Difference tripled during this time and has become a top leadership site. This was accomplished with a complete community spirit, and I am so grateful for the leaders who have joined in and set a great example. 

Collaborating and rallying around a common mission creates positive change. 

  • How have your beliefs shaped your career in leadership?

There are two parts to this answer. The first is my beliefs in anything is possible and always do the right thing were instinctive. Growing up on a farm, with so much being uncontrollable, I always thought we could make anything good happen. Hand-in-hand with this was my sound upbringing of always trying to do the right thing. These two beliefs set my career on a good path and took me a long way forward.

The other part to the answer is this. I wish I would have spent the time to write down my core beliefs beyond these two. I wish I would have written my leadership philosophy. I wish someone would have told me these were good things to do. I believe if I had taken the time to do these two things, I would have done more in better ways and built better relationships along the way. 

The point is we should do more than what is instinctive. We should take the time to think through and write down our philosophy and beliefs, letting them serve as guideposts or new direction points.

  • What are your future writing plans?

Good question. I would love to write another book, but I am not sure when or a direction right now. I continue to write at Thin Difference along with several other leadership and Millennial sites. My guess is that I will start to think more seriously about what’s next on the book front early next year.

Writing is a good experience. The practice of writing has made me think through challenges with more empathy and has given me an opportunity to act in better ways. Everyone should develop a practice of writing!

To learn more about Jon and his work, visit his website thindifference.com or find him on Twitter via @jonmertz.  You can purchase Activate Leadership here or via any major book retailer.

What mentor resource do you recommend for August? Include it in comments below.