Why is it that only the most successful entrepreneurs, including Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Richard Branson, admit to having a mentor and actually use them? Starting a new business is tough, and the last thing you need is to suffer the same mistakes that have killed businesses like yours before you. Yet many entrepreneurs I know are too proud or too shy to even ask for advice.
Obviously, I’m a big fan of business mentors based on my own experience, since I have been at different times on both the contributing and receiving end of the relationship. I realize that finding a mentor and making the relationship work takes work and commitment on both sides, much like finding a good life partner.
Most successful business people, whether retired or still active, would love to share some of the wisdom they have gained from their own experience, but are not inclined to impose themselves on others. They expect you to take the initiative, to ask them, and to make it a fun and productive relationship. Here are my guidelines on how to make that happen:
Identify specific issues and goals where you need mentoring. First, you need to admit that you want mentoring, and in what areas. If you don’t have any idea what you are seeking, you won’t know when you have found it. It’s tempting for technical founders to seek more depth on technical issues, when they need marketing and financial help.
Be willing and able to commit time and effort to the process. Finding a mentor won’t help you if you don’t have time to listen, and are not willing to do your homework to ask the right questions. Mentors are people too, so they will quickly sense when they aren’t valued. Sessions must always remain positive and not defensive, rather than excuses.
Ask for a reasonable time commitment from a mentor candidate. Even the best mentor may be of no value to you, if you can never reach them, or they never find time for you. Then make sure you never make yourself a burden by frequent calls or wasting time on trivial subjects. The best approach is regularly scheduled small blocks of time.
Prepare and plan to lead each mentor session for best productivity. Don’t expect the mentor to know and drive your business. Provide the mentor with your relevant business metrics and data, if possible, before each meeting, to allow them to do prior homework as required. The most valuable insights may be for broader or future business implications.
Expect a mentor to tell you what you need to hear, not be a cheerleader. The best mentors are not previous close friends or family, who may tell you only what you want to hear. Most of us need both friends and mentors, and the ability to tell the difference. Most mentors don’t have the time to be your business coach to help you with generic skills.
Plan for regular communication both ways, both written and verbal. The more a mentor knows about your situation, the more directed will be their help. On the other hand, a mentor is not your direct report, or your boss. Thus don’t be handing out work assignments, or expecting the mentor to make your decisions for you.
Manage the relationship to keep it positive and productive. Don’t tolerate unresponsive or negative mentor relationships, and end them quickly, just as you would with non-productive partner or employee relationships. But don’t burn any bridges, since a mentor will likely have relationships with other key business connections.
In addition to these considerations, there is always the question of mentor monetary compensation. If you can find a mentor who shares your passion for the business or cause you support, or make it a learning opportunity for them, that may be adequate compensation.
In any case, it is good form to offer something, such as a monthly stipend, expense coverage, or perhaps a one percent ownership in your startup to show your commitment. I assure you, the returns will far exceed your costs.
Don’t let your ego or time management abilities rob you of this valuable competitive advantage. Your business needs every edge to get to the next level.
*** First published on Inc.com on 11/24/2016 ***