Mentorship is a key element of business success. While it has had a long and varied history, only recently has its true power for entrepreneurs been recognized. Mentorship is hot right now. We often hear stories from successful entrepreneurs who credit a mentor at some point in their business journey. In fact, they usually reference several mentors who helped them at different stages.
As entrepreneurs, we are often so busy just getting things done, the thought of taking time out of our busy days to sit down with a mentor seems like a “nice to have.” We put it off because it does not seem like an essential part of building a business. Or perhaps, we don’t know what to expect or who to ask.
I was fortunate that early in my career, I was taken under the wings of an entrepreneurial husband-and-wife team. With their guidance, I found the confidence to realize that anything is possible. They did not tell me what to do, yet rather asked me questions that challenged my thinking and steered me toward better decisions.
The mentor’s role is not to give advice, but to provide guidance by asking the tough questions. Mentors provide a neutral viewpoint and share their own experiences.
Types of Mentor/Mentee Relationships
Mentoring relationships can be formal (through a structured program) or informal (via coffee chats or phone calls). Some formal mentoring programs provide guidelines and have a defined timeline. These programs typically range from a minimum of six months to two years. It takes time to build a strong relationship, so manage your expectations around this.
If you decide to initiate an informal path, identify people you admire and can learn from. Research their backgrounds and then reach out to request a meeting or phone call. Clarify your intention and respect potential mentors’ time. Many of us are afraid to reach out but remember: success does not happen overnight and everyone has to start somewhere. What is the worst that can happen? The person says “no”? Then move on to the next one. In most cases, people are honoured to be asked and will make time, even if only for a phone call.
Once you establish an initial meeting, get prepared. Develop a list of questions, opportunities and challenges to address. Understand the mentor’s expertise and respect that he or she will not have all of the answers. Remember, the role of the mentor is to ask you questions and prod you to uncover the answers.
Understanding your Role
Mentors serve many purposes. Certain times you need to ask a mentor a specific question, other times you are looking for someone to work with you consistently through a particular issue or phase of your career. It is incredibly powerful to have a non-biased neutral party meet with you on a regular basis and hold you accountable to your own goals and tasks. I believe a strong mentoring relationship is driven by the mentee and guided by the mentor.
If you decide to formalize the mentoring relationship, set expectations on both sides. Clearly articulate what you, as the entrepreneur, want to gain from the association. The mentor should also share how he or she prefers to be communicated with, how much time they have available and what they believe they can offer. By having an honest and upfront conversation about expectations, you will s build a solid foundation.
Getting to Know Your Mentor
As someone who has benefitted from mentoring and who now mentors a number of entrepreneurs, I have found the following questions to be helpful during the first meeting with a mentor:
- How do you like to work with your mentees?
Determine your mentor’s availability and preferred mode of communication. Some are happy to take your phone calls at 3am., others prefer email communication. Identify the format that the mentor favours. Does your mentor like to receive a pre-meeting agenda outlining key challenges and opportunities? Does he or she want you to track the tasks you have committed to and report back on a weekly or monthly basis? Or maybe your mentor prefers you reach out on an as-needed basis, which may only be a few times per year. Understand and outline the basics of the relationship at the outset.
- What are your favourite sources of inspiration? Resources?
Asking this question will help you gain insight into the interests of your mentor and will help build trust. It will also provide you with sources for your own professional development.
- How have you benefited from a mentoring relationship?
The answer to this question will provide context for what you can expect from your mentor. You can also build on this question by asking open-ended questions like, “What worked?” and “What did not work in the mentoring relationship?” This opens the door for how can you both learn from the mentoring experience.
- What can I do to support you?
Mentoring is a two-way street. It always helps to have something to offer, even if he/she does not take you up on it. By offering you can build trust and respect.
Like anything, a mentoring relationship takes work. And not every relationship works out. That’s okay. If it’s not working, acknowledge it and move on. The key to success is investing upfront in building a foundation based on learning, openness, honesty and trust. The benefits for both of you, plus your business, will be incredible.
How to Find a Mentor
In Canada, we have access to many resources for entrepreneurs, including mentorship programs. Examples include:
- Futurpreneur Canada – A resource for entrepreneurs between the ages of 18 – 39 (1:1 mentoring).
- Women’s Enterprise Centre – Initiatives in BC, Alberta, Manitoba (peer mentoring & 1:1 mentoring).
- MentorshipBC – An online resource connecting entrepreneurs in BC with a variety of mentoring programs.
- Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) – Peer mentoring.
- Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO) – Peer mentoring.
- Gro Your Biz – Peer mentoring.
I believe we all have a responsibility to support one another. We need to reach out for the hand in front of us; more importantly though, we need to reach out for a hand behind us. We all have skills and experiences we can share with others slightly further behind us on the path. Don’t under value this. Pay it forward and mentor others. Exponential rewards will come back to you.