Whether you are starting or growing a business, it pays to have a mentor on your side. What is a real business mentor? Someone with more experience than you…someone who offers not only knowledge and support, but also perspective and insight. A mentor should be a savvy business veteran who can help you navigate business challenges. Mentors do plenty of cheerleading, but their real value is in the objective, unvarnished advice they provide…they often tell you what you need to hear about your business (not necessarily what you want to hear). Let’s be clear, mentors aren’t parents, friends or even supportive investors…they need to be much more objective than that.
The benefits of a mentoring relationship are compelling: revelant perspective and advice, skill improvement, networking contacts and encouragement. Here’s how to find the right mentor for you:
Clarify why you want a mentor. What guidance are you seeking? Help with specific operational issues? Hiring your first employee? Support and encouragement? Feedback on developing your path for commercialization? Be clear about what sort of help matters most to you. Write down your issues and prioritize their importance. This list becomes your first discussion with a potential mentor.
Know where to look. Look for a person you can trust to listen objectively. Cast a wide net to your extended network and seek a word-of-mouth referral. Attend networking events and ask peers if they have used a local mentoring service. Our community has three amazing organizations that provide free mentoring services for people starting or growing a business: SCORE, the Small Business Development Centers, and the Women’s Business Centers. All three collaborate within Maine’s business ecosystem.
Request a meeting. If you can’t get fifteen minutes of their time, it is a warning flag. Severe time constraints are a barrier to the success of the mentoring relationship. It is also completely acceptable to explore the skills and experience of the mentor–can they provide the expertise you need? A mentor should be someone you can relate to immediately, and the chemistry should be welcoming and inviting right from the start. In order to fully benefit from the engagement, you have to be willing to open up and put yourself out there without fear. The mentor’s role is to suspend judgment, listen and learn. Mentors are not mind readers, so clearly articulate your business, your goals and what you hope to accomplish in your meetings.
Ask for what you want…and be careful what you ask for. Remember, a mentor is not there to agree with you. Discuss issues openly, ask for guidance and really hear the responses. Analysis of the situation may result in a different approach to solving the problem. Be open to new ways of thinking. If you are headstrong and rigid, you might not get much out of the time.
Define the rules of engagement. Are you seeking a long-term mentoring relationship? If so, fear not and ask! Determine meeting frequency and use meetings, email and the phone, based on the mentor’s communication style and preferences. Jointly set expectations for each conversation. If all progresses nicely and you are meeting your mentorship goals, you may decide to meet more or less frequently. And remember, mentor relationships can change over time; you may well develop a friendship that extends beyond business.
Mentors are free. It’s critical to understand the difference between a consultant and a mentor. You should never have to pay a mentor. The golden rule for a mentor’s motivation? An open and honest desire to help. The mentor has a “sincere desire to help,” and the mentee has a “strong desire to learn.” You may find yourself in need of a consultant’s time and expertise, but that is very different from the mentoring relationship described above.
Ready to find your mentor? SCORE mentors stand ready to serve.