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. 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.
Many entrepreneurs are often so busy just getting things done the thought of taking time out to sit down with a mentor seems like an impossible dream. Many put it off because it does not seem like an essential part of building a business. Others do so because they don’t know what to expect or who to ask.
However, those who do find mentors report significant perks to the relationship. Good mentors never tell you what to do; rather they ask questions that challenge thinking and guide you towards 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 government 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. If the person says no, 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 formalise the mentoring relationship, set expectations on both sides. Clearly articulate what you, as an 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 build a solid foundation.
Getting to Know Your Mentor
One of the most important questions prospective mentees can ask of their mentors is:
- How do you like to work with your mentees?
From the first meeting, it’s a good idea to determine your mentor’s availability and preferred mode of communication. Some are happy to take phone calls at 3 Am., 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. 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 the UK, there are many ways you can go about finding a mentor, through the government or through a private scheme. Examples include:
- com – an organisation dedicated to linking growing businesses with mentors.
- co.uk – a website that allows mentors to list their availability and field of expertise.
- The Mentoring Program – a not for profit program dedicated to helping different groups access mentors from FTSE100 companies.
- New Enterprise Allowance – a government scheme that can supply fledgling businesses with money and mentorship provided they fulfil specific requirements.
Most mentors believe we all have a responsibility to support one another. Everyone has skills and experiences they can share with others. Don’t under value this. Pay it forward and mentor others. Exponential rewards will come back to you.