Do you have a mentor? I mean a person in your corner who has real experience in your field. Someone you can float ideas past and reach out to when you have questions. I’m not talking about your spouse, sibling or your best friend. Having a strong personal network is important, yes. But this is about your professional network.
And chances are, the answer is no. According to SCORE, the free small business counseling network, only a little more than half of small business owners reach out to mentors for advice. That’s not good for the bottom line.
Having a mentor gives you a sounding board, a way to test out ideas and get feedback from an experienced audience. Ideally, this person has been there, done that, and can help guide you to the same level of success. “Business owners often end up working in the business, instead of on the business. A mentor can help you work on the business – on growing it and taking it to the next level,” says Dr. Lois Zachary, author of The Mentee’s Guide: Making Mentoring Work for You. The right relationship will provide technical knowledge and a little handholding.
So how do you find someone to have your back?
Step 1: Make a list. You’re separating the wants from the needs here, and narrowing down what you must have in an advisor. That way, you can make a decision that’s based on solid criteria. Some suggestions: Focus on someone who is well-respected in your industry, who is a good listener, approachable, empathetic and a problem-solver. Think about criteria specific to your business: If the region you’re in is important, you should focus on someone who knows that area well. You also, of course, want someone who has time to be your mentor. And beyond that, it’s simply a matter of chemistry – do you work well together, are you going to be able to learn from this person?
Step 2: Take the initiative. In general, it’s up to the mentee to reach out and start building the relationship. Once you have the qualities you’re looking for nailed down, Zachary suggests approaching your immediate network and asking that they reach out to their networks. That way, your circle grows and eventually, you’ll turn up the right fit. Once you have a few options, shoot a personalized, introductory email acknowledging their work and asking if they might be willing to grab coffee or lunch sometime. Don’t be too forward – you don’t want to ask them to be your mentor right off the bat, and after all, you don’t fully know if he or she meets your criteria yet – but frame it as an introductory meeting of sorts, where you can bounce around a few questions and get to know each other. These kinds of mentoring relationships often grow organically.
If your network doesn’t turn up any options, try industry groups, professional organizations, or even LinkedIn. Zachary says that most chambers of commerce, too, will have some sort of mentoring program for local entrepreneurs.
Step 3: Define your goals. “We know that mentoring relationships that have established agreements are more successful than those that don’t,” says Zachary. “That means establishing goals, laying out what the success factors are, and talking about ground rules at the start.” We’re not talking about a signed contract here, but rather a framework for your relationship, so your mentor knows what, exactly, you need help with. Be very upfront and honest about what you’re hoping to get out of the relationship, and encourage your mentor to be open about what he or she can offer, in terms of both time and guidance. If the nature of your business requires it, you may want to have the mentor sign a confidentiality agreement.
Step 4: Spread the love. This isn’t a marriage - it doesn’t have to be a monogamous relationship. It’s okay to have a couple different mentors, particularly if you can’t find a single person who meets all of your needs. A good mentor will be upfront about his or her strengths and weaknesses, and encourage you to fill in the blanks elsewhere.
Step 5: Give back. When you feel ready, become a mentor yourself. This is a mutually beneficial relationship, believe it or not: Mentors generally report learning a lot from their mentees, who are often younger and may be up on the latest technology and trends in the industry. It’s also good for your rep, particularly if your protégé succeeds.