Entrepreneurs are an eclectic bunch! Some have entrepreneurship thrust upon them by necessity, while others were born with a passion for it. But no matter how you get there, all entrepreneurs start out as novices when launching their first business.
Having a mentor at this stage in your career can mean the difference between success and failure over the long term. A 2012 survey found that entrepreneurs who received mentoring increasing their revenue by an average $47,000 a year. And the American Psychological Association says that there are a host of benefits of mentorship including, career coaching, a larger and wider professional network and more job satisfaction for the entrepreneur.
But how do you find a mentor, what should you look for and how do you ask someone to be a mentor? These are important questions to consider before you get into a mentoring relationship.
What is a Mentor?
Before we get into exactly how to find a mentor, it’s important to understand what a mentor is, as well as what a mentor is not.
A good working definition of a mentor for our purposes is
“Someone with experience in a field, occupation or business who is willing to share it with a less experienced person called a mentee”.
You may be reading this and thinking that this sounds a lot like a business coach. After all, a coach is someone who has experience and expertise in a field that is paid to share it with you. While the two roles are similar, there are a couple of important differences.
First of all, the mentoring relationship is rarely a paid one while hiring a coach or consultant is.
Secondly, hiring a business coach is a more formal relationship with a clearly defined project and a finite time frame. A mentor/mentee relationship is more informal and can last for years.
Finally, when you hire a coach, you can expect them to give you specific advice to solve a specific problem. A mentor acts more as a sounding board for problems, so that you can work them out yourself.
Benefits of a Mentor-Mentee Relationship
The obvious benefit of having a mentor/mentee relationship is the mentor’s experience in the field. For someone just starting out this is invaluable. All businesses have their unique quirks that are only known to the insiders.
For example, you may think that insurance companies make all their money off of the premiums that you pay. But did you know that the real money is made in the “float”?
The float is the time between when an insurance company gets your money and when they have to pay out your claim. The longer that period is, the more money is being made by the insurance company. And you wondered why they were so slow paying your claim!
It’s this kind of little known insider knowledge that makes having a mentor so valuable. Additionally, a mentor will offer objective advice, a unique perspective and encouragement.
But the biggest benefit of a mentoring relationship is experience. Experience is an asset just like any other asset albeit an expensive one to get. You can significantly cut your costs of acquiring experience with a good mentor.
How to Find a Mentor in 7 (Not So) Easy Steps
1. Prepare Yourself
As entrepreneurs, we are used to doing things by ourselves. We read articles and watch YouTube videos in order to tackle the unknown. And while this self motivation and problem solving strategy is what defines us, it’s a double edged sword.
A lot of times, we get tunnel vision about how things should work and how problems get solved. This rigidity can limit the options we see. It’s almost always better to give up on the idea of how things “should work” in theory and embrace the lessons of experience.
I learned this the hard way when I was designing a commission structure for my sales people. I had set it up so that they would get a percentage of each sale they made. It made sense to me. After all, the more they sold, the higher their commissions would be.
However, I soon discovered that while they were selling to the customers who were looking to buy, they weren’t going out of their way to make the sale happen.
I ended up talking about this with a friend who was a fellow business owner and he pointed out that I was relying exclusively on extrinsic motivation to generate sales, (commissions). We talked about ways to develop intrinsic motivation within the team as it’s a much better motivational technique than extrinsic motivation.
Long story short, not only did sales improve, but so did morale.
2. It’s About the Person More Than the Position
Ideally, you should find a mentor who is the idealized version of what you want to become. But there are some basic characteristics that you shouldn’t ignore when choosing a mentor.
The most important one is honesty and trustworthiness. It should go without saying, but I’ve seen too many people get burned because they were blinded by a person’s position instead of principles.
3. Make Yourself Attractive to Potential Mentors
People who are experts in their fields have a passion for it, and they are often on the lookout for people who share that passion. So your job is to show them that for you, it’s more than just a job or a way to make money. You share the same passion as they do.
Unfortunately, this is not something that you can fake. The experts can spot a fake from the genuine article a mile away.
With that being said, you can make yourself stand out from the crowd by putting in extra effort, working late, contributing in meetings and taking on those jobs that others won’t. These are the things that mentors notice and even if you don’t share their passion for the work, putting in the extra effort will make you a more attractive candidate for mentorship.
4. Open Yourself up to All of the Possibilities
You can’t always pick out your own mentor. Sometimes, mentors pick you; be open to this possibility.
We see this a lot when people want mentors who are “too far up the food chain”. It’s common for young people just starting out to pick the CEO or President of the company to be a mentor. These people rarely have the time or inclination to mentor someone who may or may not be with the company in a year. Meanwhile, a manager or VP who has a vested interest in your success could be the perfect mentor fit (for now).
You also want to make sure that you are looking side to side for mentors, not just up. Sometimes, you can find a peer that is a rising star. Encourage and emulate that person. At the very least, you’ll develop some good networking opportunities down the road.
5. Choose Someone Close
While the advent of the internet has made long distance mentorship possible, it’s still not ideal. Your mentor should be someone who is fairly easy to reach and ideally someone close enough that you can have face to face meetings.
On a side note, whenever I meet with a mentor of mine, I alway pay. It doesn’t matter if it’s coffee or a meal out with their family, it’s my treat. Make sure your mentor-mentee relationship is a two way street.
6. Don’t Always Look for Someone like You
Good mentors come in all shapes and sizes. Our former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it this way:
“Search for role models you can look up to and people who take an interest in your career. But here’s an important warning: You don’t have to have mentors who look like you. Had I been waiting for a black, female Soviet specialist mentor, I would still be waiting. Most of my mentors have been old white men, because they were the ones who dominated my field.”
7. Make the Ask
Asking someone to be your mentor doesn’t have to be awkward, just ask your friend to hand them a note that says “Do you want to be my mentor? circle one. Yes, No, Maybe”. Okay that was a joke, but you will need to formalize the relationship so that expectations are clear.
The first thing you need to do is to be clear about what you are looking for in the mentor-mentee relationship. Only then should you make the ask. Then make sure your ask follows this formula:
- Tell them what you admire about them.
- Explain what your goals are for the mentoring process.
- Suggest a logistical scenario.
Your conversation should go something like this,“Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, I was really impressed with how you handled the client/sale/business meeting (whatever). I would like to work on my skills in that area and was wondering if you’d be willing to mentor me? I don’t want to take up a lot of your time, but if we could do lunch once a week, maybe on Wednesday? Would you be open to that?”
This is a direct, strait to the point conversation that gives the prospective mentor all the information they need to evaluate your request.
The Don’ts of a Mentor Relationship
So we’ve talked about what the mentor/mentee relationship is and even how you should go about getting a mentor. But there are some very specific don’ts that as a potential mentee, you should know about.
Don’t Ask Someone You’ve Never Had a Conversation With
Sure, the top person in your industry would probably be a great mentor, but unless you already have a relationship with them, it’s not going to work.
The mentor-mentee relationship is a personal one. This allows for the mentor to become vested in your success. You can not expect someone to have a vested interest in your success who doesn’t even know you.
Don’t Meet with Your Mentor If You’re Unprepared
A mentor’s time is valuable, don’t waste it with questions that you could and should figure out on your own.
A good rule of thumb is; “If you can Google it, then Google it, don’t ask your mentor.” Use the limited time you have with them wisely.
Don’t Just Take from a Mentor
As I stated earlier, whenever I meet with my mentors, I pay. This is an acknowledgement of the value the mentor brings to the relationship. Their knowledge and experience is worth more than any cup of Starbucks or family dinner that I pay for.
But even if you don’t or can’t pay, there is always something you can do to help out your mentor. The mentor-mentee relationship is a reciprocal one.
Don’t Make It Difficult to Meet
Make sure you are working around the mentor’s schedule and not yours. While this is a reciprocal relationship, the truth is, as the mentee, you’re getting most of the benefits from the relationship.
Besides, the more senior the mentor, the more demands they will have on their time.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Tough Questions
And by tough questions, I don’t mean “How do I design an employee benefits package?”
I mean “Where am I falling short?”, “What do I need to work on or improve?” or “What do you see as my biggest weakness?”
Trust me, if you can ask these types of questions and be open to hearing the answers, it will help your business more than anything else.
Don’t Ignore Their Advice
One of the quickest ways to ruin a mentor-mentee relationship is to ask for advice and then ignore it. Now this doesn’t mean that you have to do everything that your mentor tells you to do. After all, it’s still your business or career. Just be selective about when and how you ask for advice.
For example, it’s better to say “I have a choice between scenario A and scenario B.” What do you think about the pros and cons of each?” rather than to say “I have a choice between scenario A and scenario B. Which one should I choose?”
In the first example, you’re using them as a sounding board for your decision, in the second example you are asking them to make a decision for your business.
When you ask them to make a decision for your business, out of all the possible outcomes, only one is positive. Your mentor makes the right decision for you. If the mentor makes the wrong decision, then you are unhappy. If the mentor makes the right decision and you don’t take their advice, the mentor is frustrated. If the mentor gives you the wrong advice and you ignore it, the value of the relationship is diminished.
The point here is to use the mentor’s knowledge and experience to guide you in your decisions, not to make the decisions for you.
The value of a good mentor can not be overemphasized for the budding entrepreneur. The tricky part is knowing what to look for and how to find a mentor for your specific needs.
Mentors can be found almost anywhere, from friends and family to networking events, industry trade shows and even through social media with websites like LinkedIn. But wherever you find a mentor, make sure that it is someone who is trustworthy, with good communication skills who is willing to invest the time and effort involved in mentorship.
And always remember that the mentor/mentee relationship is a two way street so be sure to bring something of value to the mentor as well!
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