How to become a leader / How to expand your network

Find mentors to spur your career

People often scratch their heads and wonder how I was appointed Deputy Mayor at age 31, just 10 years after graduating from college and moving to Los Angeles where I knew no one. I can understand their surprise. After all, I’m a child of immigrants who struggled to learn English and to fit in. I’m perhaps slightly above-average in some areas – intelligence, looks, talents – while below-average in other areas, such as height and weight.

Great mentors were important to my journey. This is a story of one of my mentors, and how to develop mentors for yourself.

When I graduated from Duke in 1991, I was drawn to Los Angeles by its glamour and good weather.

How I found my greatest mentor

Maureen, in her 70s, receives her M.A. in education

Shortly after arriving, I signed up for an Asian Pacific Women’s Network event. There, I met a woman who later invited me out with her neighbor, a lobbyist named Maureen Kindel. In America, while mayors and governors rotate in and out of office, “kingmakers” like Maureen help decide who gets elected to what position. Behind the scenes, they pull the strings that make government run.

Maureen embraced me into her life, and over time, I became known as “Maureen’s Chinese daughter.”  She loved to entertain, but hated sending out invitations and organizing the events. So I jumped in, helping her with the details while she played hostess par excellence. Our Saturday night dinner parties and poker nights were legendary among California’s business and political leaders.

From Maureen, I learned how to connect with people of diverse backgrounds.  Maureen is one of the world’s most artful, generous, lively and charming personalities. She’s a voracious learner and can converse on any subject.  She understands power and how to wield it.

Maureen continues to surprise, delight and attract many, men as well as women. A few years ago when she turned 70, she sat before her birthday cake and said “The only thing that surprises me at age 70 is … that I am still SUCH a FOX!”  She has not stopped.  She’s returned to school and is now working on her doctorate in education. When you and I are her age, may we all share her capacity for joy and learning.

To cultivate a mentor, become an indispensable assistant

Maureen, my mother and me at my wedding

When I think about our mentoring relationship, I’m reminded of the wise words of another close friend, Joel Kurtzman, who is one of the world’s top business strategists and a former Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Business Review. Joel says that most highly successful people have been blessed with mentors, and the way to develop someone as a mentor is to become his or her “indispensable assistant.”

To mentor you, someone need not to be as powerful and distinctive as Maureen. He or she just needs to be someone from whom you can learn, and in fact, you can learn from everyone. When you find someone you’d like to have as a mentor, find a way to become an indispensable assistant.

Find virtual mentors online

Meanwhile, study remarkable people from afar.  The WWW is an incredible resource which did not exist when I was starting out in my career. Marketer Hajj Flemings points out that many outstanding people mentor millions virtually:

When was the last time you read a blog post or followed someone on Twitter and the light went on for you? … These brief points of interaction can be as impactful as spending 3 or 4 hours with a person in a face-to-face mentoring session.

In this way, I have developed many online mentors whom I’ve never met. I follow a wide range of people, including: philanthropist Bill Gates, technology leaders Robert Scoble and Guy Kawasaki, marketing leader Seth Godin, economist Tyler Cowen, NY Times columnist Tom Friedman, GE’s Jack Welch, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, and media moguls Oprah and Martha Stewart. I try to retweet the tweets that I find most helpful, so if you want to see those, you can follow me at @globalrencai.

If you’d like to share your own list of great people to follow, on Twitter, Renren, SINA or other resources, please post them in the Comments section of this blog post.

Having had such great mentors, I now am blessed with the chance to give back. I can’t fill all the requests for personal mentoring which I receive, so I started this blog, to help virtually mentor the millions of young Chinese who will build the future of China and by extension shape our world. To help with this, I’ve just hired a small team of elite Communications student interns from USC.  Here at, we look forward to expanding our range of information, videos, interviews and other resources to help accelerate your career. So if you’d like to take advantage of this, subscribe your email address above if you haven’t already.

Potential Mentors are Everywhere

Every highly successful person I’ve met has had mentors and heroes who inspired their own greatness. Find mentors who can serve as role models for you. They are all around you, in person and online.

I welcome your comment, in English or Chinese, on the Chinese version of this blog post, which is here.