As you grow your business, you’ll inevitably need to reach out for advice or support. Various business coaches – specializing in everything from marketing, to cash-flow management, to finding investors – will need to be consulted for timely advice to help you fill in your knowledge gaps.
What’s more, you’ll need to when and how to make use of allied professionals, such as lawyers, bankers, accountants, who will provide important and specific technical advice to round out the entrepreneurs skill set.
But there's a third type of advice that can be essential to your business success – it’s the support that an entrepreneur can receive from mentors.
Mentors are different than coaches and professionals, who bring technical skills and subject matter expertise. Mentoring involves a developmental relationship between a more experienced "mentor" and the less experienced “mentee” (in this case, the entrepreneur), and the relationship typically involves sharing of advice but can also involve counselling, guidance, nurturing and a supportive environment to enable the mentee to test decisions and ideas.
From Ancient Greece to the Corporate World
The practice of mentoring has deep historical roots: in ancient Greece, young males usually lived with more mature men at their side: in this way they could learn community values.
In modern corporate life, mentorship is common. The new employees to the corporation are paired with more experienced people (mentors) in order to obtain information, good examples, and advice as they advance. It is believed that new employees who are paired with a mentor are twice as likely to remain in their jobs than those who do not receive mentorship.
Mentoring is used to groom up-and-coming employees deemed to have potential to move into leadership roles; the mentee is paired with a senior level leader (or leaders) for a series of career-coaching interactions.
Practical Mentorship for the Small Business Owner
For the solo entrepreneur, you can set up your own mentorship relationships and circles – and almost every entrepreneur will benefit from assistance from a mentor.
Input from a mentor might be easier to accept if you don’t think of it as “advice.” Think of mentoring as exercise for your brain, making your thought processes clearer, sharper and more robust, with the benefit of a safe workout with a supportive trainer.
And just as one type of exercise may focus on one type of health benefit, having a group of mentors to work with provides the kind of cross-training, or cross-testing of ideas that leads to greater business success.
What Makes a Good Mentor?
A good mentor/mentee relationship has great chemistry, and can last for years. It has everything to do with finding values alignment, or identifying a particular kind of success that is important, or identifying a mentor who seems like a good role model. A good mentor will listen more than talk, and will encourage the mentee to come to his or her own solutions by providing a sounding board.
Finding the right mentor has little to do with superficial factors, such as mentor and mentee working in the same industry. In fact, working with a mentor outside of your industry can be beneficial because they’ll provide advice that will help you think in general terms of successful systems, rather than simply trying to map their exact experience onto your own business.
Three Steps to Finding the Right Mentor
But how do you know who will be a good mentor for you?
First, you need to identify what goals or need help testing out. As an entrepreneur, you probably have several goals you’d love to accomplish. Write down the three or four goals you’d like to accomplish and then put a date beside each goal. Be very specific here: your goals should say “I intend to do X by this date.”
Second, pick the goal that seems the hardest for you to achieve, and break it down into steps to achieve that goal. Take a look at those steps, and think about what you need to learn to achieve each of those. Based on what you have identified as a goal and as the steps to get there, where would you most benefit from outside support? What skills are you personally lacking that an outsider could help you develop or understand?
Third, start asking people you know who they know that has these qualities. And then follow-up by calling on those potential mentors – but remember – you want to gauge the chemistry first, so go slowly here.
Be prepared for this first contact by having four or five questions that you think would be helpful to explore with a mentor. When you make the first contact, say who you are, what your business is, what your goals are, and then use the questions to help the potential mentor decide if they are the right person to mentor you.