When TJ Londagin’s management consulting firm, Totem, lost some of its business due to the pandemic, he did what he’s done since the launch of the Washington, D.C.-based firm more than two years ago: He reached out to his mentor, Karen Williams. Williams, who had first connected with Londagin through SCORE, a network of volunteer business experts that provide free small-business mentoring sessions, helped Londagin and his partner devise short- and long-term plans in anticipation of reopening.
As the economy continues to shift and businesses pivot in response, mentors can offer guidance, share resources and lend a sympathetic ear. I spoke with Williams, Londagin and Ben Tenn, who is a mentor with MicroMentor, a nonprofit that connects entrepreneurs with volunteer business mentors, about why—and how—to connect with a mentor in the new business landscape.
“Being the leader is remarkably lonely,” says Tenn. Mentors can help small-business leaders feel supported. They can also direct leaders to the right resources, says Williams, who serves as the district director for the Washington, D.C. SCORE district. She says that the D.C. chapter has seen a large increase in mentor requests as business leaders seek to navigate the challenges, first, of staying afloat, and now of reopening during COVID-19. Many of those people are seeking advice around Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. SCORE, which is a nonprofit organization and resource partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), has many mentors and subject matter experts with banking and finance backgrounds. SCORE also recently launched a Coronavirus Small Business Resource Hub, which is filled with up-to-date information to help small-business owners access timely resources and information.
In addition, mentors can offer insights they’ve learned from past economic downturns. Both Tenn and Williams weathered the recession of 2008, and are able to share actionable advice with mentees on what worked and what didn’t work during that time. Tenn says that he’s able to offer a big-picture perspective, in good times and in bad. "In many instances, because of my breadth of experience I can bring new ideas, new options to consider, new approaches that they might not think of themselves, because they’re so focused on day-to-day," says Tenn.
How Do You Find a Mentor?
Mentors can come in all forms, both formal and informal, says Londagin, who believes that business leaders can even benefit from multiple mentors who come from all backgrounds. “I think people get into the mindset that a mentor has to be someone senior to you, someone who has a lot more experience,” he says. In fact, Londagin says, he considers some younger people in his life to be his mentors, because they teach him about the importance of work-life balance. “Millennials are much better at that than I am,” he says.
Williams agrees that mentors can be anyone—bosses, former colleagues, university professors, friends. The key, she says, is finding the right fit and being patient. “It really becomes personal. It has to feel right. There has to be trust. It takes a while to really develop that relationship,” she says.
For a more formal mentor relationship, organizations such as SCORE and MicroMentor—both of which offer free services—are a great place to start. In response the pandemic, SCORE began offering remote mentor services, allowing mentors and mentees to meet via video conference, email or phone, rather than in person as they did in the past. With MicroMentor, users set up a free online profile, and can connect virtually with mentors around the world, asking a single question or keeping in touch longer-term.
Do You Want to Become a Mentor?
While mentees like Londagin benefit from working with a mentor, mentors themselves can learn and grow from the relationship, too. Williams says that her mentor role has given her meaning and purpose in her retirement. “It’s very rewarding to help someone and have them appreciate you,” she says. In addition, the role has given her a reason to stay connected to what’s happening in her industry, even in retirement. “I still subscribe to all the daily blogs I used to when I was working. So I’m still in touch with what’s happening in the marketplace. And that’s been very rewarding for me,” she says.
In many instances, because of my breadth of experience I can bring new ideas, new options to consider, new approaches that they might not think of themselves, because they’re so focused on day-to-day.
—Ben Tenn, management consultant and coach
Business face a lot of demands and challenges in running their business even in good times. And during Covid-19, the variables have multiplied. “As a small business, you’re the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker,” says Londagin. “There’s 1,000 things that can take me any direction.” A mentor, he says, is an invaluable asset right now. As the economy continues to shift and businesses reopen, a trusted and experienced guide can help put business owners back on course, or even chart new territories.
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