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What can a mentor do for me? How do I find a good one?

A mentor is a person with more experience in business, or simply in life, who can help an entrepreneur hone her or his abilities and advise him or her on navigating new challenges. A mentor can be a boon to an entrepreneur in a broad range of scenarios, whether they provide pointers on business strategy, bolster your networking efforts or act as confidantes when your work-life balance gets out of whack. But the first thing you need to know when seeking out a mentor is what you’re looking for from the arrangement.

How to Find a Mentor: Know What You Want

Bruce Judson, a senior faculty fellow at Yale University’s School of Management has been on both sides of the fence. He’s had mentors and mentees and when someone seeks him out for his counsel he wants to know what their business goals are. He asks, what’s ‘your vision at the end? What does success look like and what is your objective? Is it to be financially independent? Is it to do something meaningful? Have time for your family?’ Knowing a business owner’s goals helps Judson better understand what he brings to the equation and how he can best advise his mentee.

What can your mentor do for you? Determining what type of resource you need is a crucial first step in the mentor hunt. Lois Zachary, the president of Leadership Development Services, a Phoenix, Arizona-based business coaching firm, and author of The Mentee’s Guide: Making Mentoring Work for You, recommends starting with a list. You may want someone who’s a good listener, someone well connected, someone with expertise in, say, marketing, someone accessible. Ideally you could find a mentor with all of these qualities, but the reality is you may have to make some compromises. After you enumerate the qualities you’re looking for in a mentor, divide that list into wants and needs.

The next step, according to Zachary, is to ‘do an informational interview [with several candidates] and then go back to your criteria, that way you don’t get blown away by chemistry and you stay focused on your business or personal reasons for wanting a mentor.’ By gauging a combination of the qualitative and quantitative attributes of each of your potential mentors, a prime candidate will emerge.

Keep in mind that it may be beneficial to have more than one mentor. If you fear that you may monopolize too much of your mentor’s time then multiple mentors may be the answer. ‘The advantages of having multiple mentors is that you can get a lot of different points of view,’ notes Zachary, ‘and when you have a lot of mentors at one time, if they’re sitting around a table, the synergy between the mentors really helps move your thinking along.’

How to Find a Mentor: Know Where to Look

1) Start with family and friends – When looking for a mentor, start close to home. Very close to home. ‘Sometimes you can talk to your own relatives or friends, people who you trust, who you know, who you can sit and say ‘gee whiz, what do you think about this?” says Martin Lehman, a veteran of the women’s apparel industry and long-time counselor at the Service Corps of Retired Executives Association (SCORE). SCORE is a Washington D.C.-based non-profit that provides free mentoring services to business owners from its 364 chapters around the country.

2) Consider those in your extended network – If your friends and family give you enough unsolicited advice already, and you don’t think that’s the route for you, your remaining options are people who don’t know you as well or don’t know you at all yet. How do you ask for such a big commitment from a near stranger? The first step is to reach out to your network of contacts. A positive word from a mutual friend can go a long way towards getting a mentoring relationship off to a good start.

Additionally, you shouldn’t choose a mentor overnight, which means you should keep your antenna poised to pick up on potential mentors at conferences, trade shows, etc. Meeting with a future mentor in person helps build a rapport and you might want to wait until that connection develops before popping the question.

3) Consider complete strangers – Maybe none of the people in your network seem like a good fit for you. Start doing some research. Profiles of business owners in magazines and newspapers might key you in to someone who matches your style. But once you have some prospects proceed delicately. Find out as much as you can about the potential mentor and try to schedule a brief interview by phone saying you have some specific questions or just generally want to pick their brain.

You should travel to them and, especially initially, make it as easy for them to help you as you can. At the conclusion of your first interview, if it seems to have gone well, you can broach the idea of speaking again, whether by phone or in person, some time in the future. Over time, if they seem receptive, you can bring up the idea of a more formal mentoring relationship with more specific parameters and goals.

4) Consider the competition – Well, not your direct competition. For example, if you’re in retail selling socks, someone selling ties isn’t in direct competition with you but might still have some insights into the garment industry. If you have a brick and mortar store, you can even call someone who does exactly what you do in a far flung location, say you’re in New York and they’re in Ohio. However the Internet is increasingly putting retailers even on different continents in competition, so tread lightly. Another suggestion would be to seek out counsel from someone at a business larger than yours who might be less likely to view you as competition.

5) Tap your industry – Lehman also suggests that your suppliers, your local chamber of commerce, and relevant trade publications are good sources for potential mentors. These are all good places to find knowledgeable people, but how do you find someone who matches your personal style? Judson recommends seeking a mentor, ‘the same way that people look for medical professionals, in the sense that I would be looking for recommendations.’

6) Pay for a mentor – But what if you have a great idea that you want to get off the ground quickly, and you need a quick jolt of expertise? Good informal mentorships are cultivated gradually and can often last for years. If what you need is a crash course, it might be time to bring in the consultants.

‘There’s a million people out there who are running counseling businesses,’ Lehman says, adding a bit derisively, ‘there are all kinds of experts who would be delighted to charge you.’

NOTE: If you’re looking for a mentor outside of your circle of friends and family, how do you find someone invested in your success? You have to keep in mind what the mentor is getting out of the relationship. In the case of consultants, coaches, or especially advisory boards they have a financial stake in your relationship but there are other benefits to the mentor. Judson cites an innate human desire to help others, or put differently an interest in paying it forward. Additionally, the exchange of knowledge in a mentorship flows in both directions. Lehman says, ‘there’s no question, I’m learning every day. That’s why we do this. Also, it keeps the brain going.

How to Find a Mentor: Building a Relationship

A mentoring relationship can be a significant time commitment on the part of both parties. It’s not sustainable to have a mentor who you can never get in touch with, nor will a mentee last long if they call their mentor with a crisis every fifteen minutes. So how do you achieve that happy medium? It’s all about setting goals and expectations.

There are four stages to a mentoring relationship, according to Zachary.

1) Getting started – In this stage you establish whether the mentor is a match for you and vice versa. You’ve zeroed in on a potential candidate, and now it’s time to develop and possibly formalize the relationship. Get to know your mentor better, feel out what their time availability is like and think of what each of your strengths and weaknesses are so that you’re aware of the things the mentor can teach you most about as well as what they can learn from you.

WARNING: If their time’s too precious, it won’t work. The first clues come early when you try to arrange an informational interview with a potential mentor. ‘I would say if you’re having a hard time getting fifteen minutes that’s a heads up because lack of time, or perceived lack of time, can upend a relationship,’ says Zachary. She says you want someone who’s committed to the process, invested in your success, and open to learning.

2) Establishing agreements – This doesn’t necessarily mean drawing up a formal written document, although you could. Once you have entered into an implicit or explicit mentorship, you want to define certain things such as what success looks like, how often you will meet, what happens if something goes wrong, and what should stay confidential between you. You should meet with your mentor at least quarterly, to touch base, though you can meet more or less frequently as schedules allow or as the need arises, and each relationship will develop its own rhythms. Set both short-term and long-term goals such as running a successful marketing campaign, or expanding to a new location, or launching an IPO.

3) Mentoring at work – The third stage is the body of the mentoring relationship and is therefore the longest of the four. You meet with your mentor periodically and take independent steps towards improving your own business and management skills as well as meeting goals for your company’s growth and change.

These steps should, in part, be based on your mentor’s advice, so it’s important to find someone who won’t pat you on the back. Judson often receives calls supposedly soliciting advice only to have the potential mentee rebutting the feedback they were supposedly asking for. Successful mentees have to overcome this instinct. Judson says, ‘the most natural thing in the world is not to listen, it’s to defend yourself.’

If you can handle it, Judson says, it’s not hard to get a mentor to hit you with their frankest feedback. ‘Repeatedly people have said to me, how do you get people to tell you these awful things about yourself? And the answer is that I ask for them and I’m open.’

4) Coming to closure – If all has gone well and you have met the goals you originally set out with your mentor, you can discuss meeting less regularly. Hopefully you will have developed a friendship that extends beyond the mentorship and remain in touch, but your status as an acolyte soaking up knowledge at the foot of the expert is a thing of the past and you should be able to take on many of the curveballs that come your way single-handedly.

If you have not met the goals you set out, you can discuss extending the arrangement, or, if you feel that the relationship is not working out as you had hoped, you should politely thank the mentor and let them know that you feel they have given you valuable tools for dealing with your business challenges and that you will keep them appraised of your progress though you will not need to meet as frequently. Phasing things out gradually is advisable, and make sure not to burn any bridges as it could easily come back to haunt you later in your career.


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