My mom was the first person who believed in me, and she mentored by example. She had a knack for spotting the unique talents in each of her 10 kids and building us up around our individual strengths. My mom said I had a great imagination, and she put me in charge of organizing shows and inventing new games for my siblings. No surprise that I went on to become an entrepreneur.
When I started my real estate company, I modeled it exactly after the way my mom ran our family. I loved heading up a big, happy family and building on my employees’ strengths.
Today, I’m in the lucky position of being a mentor to dozens of young entrepreneurs. I invest in their businesses and lend them professional support in the form of mentorship. Choosing the right mentor is a huge advantage in building any business, and if you’re on the hunt for a good one, here are three things you should look for.
1. Choose a Mentor You Want to Be Like, Not Just Someone You Like
The coolest or richest guy on the block doesn’t necessarily make a good mentor. My first business “mentor” was also my boyfriend. He was a business savvy guy, 10 years older than me and more successful than anyone I’d ever met. He said I was smart and amazing, and I believed him, and that went a long way in bolstering my early confidence and willingness to take risks.
Ten years after starting our business, he announced that he was marrying my secretary. His mentorship abruptly ended, and I was devastated. But without my mentor, I wised up and used the experience to fuel my fire and strike out on my own. That's when I started The Corcoran Group.
When you choose a mentor, pick someone you wish to emulate. It’s their “know-how” you wish to learn, and you learn more when you respect who’s teaching.
2. Look for a Mentor Who Is Brutally Honest
Compliments are always nice, but they won’t propel you to greatness. You need a mentor who won’t hesitate to give you difficult feedback—someone quick to call out your strengths and your weaknesses. When entrepreneurs have an idea I think won’t work, I tell them straight out and why. Often they listen and sometimes they don’t, but complete honesty saves everyone time and money.
Most successful entrepreneurs know where they fall short and welcome constructive criticism. They're smart enough and tough enough to take it and view their liabilities as short-term obstacles, eager for a chance to improve. The best mentors are great teachers who are willing to take the time to help you grow. They don’t flatter; they tell the truth.
3. Choose a Mentor Who Has Also Failed
All my best successes always came on the heels of failure, and I teach that by example. I blew my first $71,000 profit on a dumb idea to put all our apartments on videotape for our homebuyers. If that idea hadn’t flopped, I wouldn’t have been the first real estate brokerage to put all our listings on the Internet. I fail often and fail well, and I’ve learned how to sniff out great success in the midst of failure. Sharing that belief can keep your company bold and motivated and miles ahead of everyone else afraid of failing.
How to Approach a Mentor
People regularly approach me with great enthusiasm: “Ms. Corcoran, can you be my mentor?” That’s not the way to win over a mentor. When you approach someone like that, it’s the equivalent of asking the guy to marry you on the first date. Way too much, too soon, and it never works.
A much better approach is to solicit a few minutes of advice on something the mentor knows well, like, “Could you give me five minutes of your time to talk about how I could do a better job with my social media?” That small ask is far more likely to get a yes and later lead to a happy "marriage."
It’s smart to offer something back, like, “I’m great at organizing, and I could help plan an event for you," or "I could straighten out all your files or get a project done you don’t have time to do.” All good relationships are a two-way street, so make sure you offer up something in return.
For more of the best insights from mentors at the Boomtown accelerator program, access our exclusive video series: Mentor Insights – On Your Schedule.
Read more articles by Barbara Corcoran.