Mentoring has become one of the biggest business buzzwords over recent years – and it’s easy to see why. In a dynamic landscape of small enterprises and start-ups, mentors play a crucial role in helping new business leaders to learn about their space, their skills and the steps they need to take to forge success.
Particularly when you’re starting out as a new business leader, mentoring can be a powerful way of learning more about both your industry and of the intricacies of managing a business on the inside. But what is the best approach to take? How can you choose a truly effective and rewarding mentor to work with? And how can you ensure that mentoring an entrepreneur is a positive experience for you and them?
Seek a guide, not an instructor
Being a mentor is not the same thing as being a teacher. Their role is not to lead their mentee along a specific, pre-planned path, nor to prepare them for a test or exam. Rather, they are there to provide counsel and suggestions at particular points of stress or confusion. They are there to pass on observations from their own experiences, but with the understanding and even the expectation that the mentee will tailor those observations to their own context. Understanding this distinction will help you select a mentor who is an ally and a guide, rather than someone who takes a more spoon-feeding approach, and also to keep the mentor/mentee relationship at an appropriate pitch.
A matter of focus
Tempting as it might be to position yourself as seeking generic ‘business guidance’, the most effective business mentors tend to offer deep expertise in one or two specific areas. So, think carefully about the precise areas you require insight and guidance in, trying to keep your focus as tight as possible. They should, of course, be areas that will benefit both you and your business, and areas where you feel additional guidance will be welcome.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that these areas of expertise can remain static, either. Technologies, laws, regulatory frameworks, competitors, customers – none of these things remain stagnant, which means that the advice you can seek from a mentor shouldn’t remain stagnant either.
Connections with care
Most entrepreneurs seeking business mentors do so with at least half an eye on the idea of picking up some powerful contacts. But those contact lists are valuable – and, as such, you should be careful about how you request them, and what you do with them. Suddenly receiving a barrage of messages from a mentee can be an imposition for your mentor, and damage both their relationships, and their work with you. Considered introductions with a specific purpose are almost always better – and you should take a lead from your mentor as to when and how those introductions take place. Of course, if you know your mentor has a relationship with someone who could be hugely beneficial for your business now, you shouldn’t be afraid of requesting that introduction directly – just explain why it’s so important.
How often should you meet?
Mentor/mentee relationships vary drastically. Some entrepreneurs will meet face-to-face with their mentors every two months or so; others will communicate digitally but only meet once or twice a year. The important thing is to be realistic about the time commitment your mentor can offer – and, indeed, that you can offer – so that whatever time you do have with them is thoughtful, in-depth, focused and unhurried.
Take the lead from your mentor
A common mistake when new to business mentoring is going into an initial meeting with a list of questions – and then not listening to anything the mentor has to say. Far better to approach your first meeting with an open mind, asking questions about the mentor’s own business experiences and challenges. You can then tailor your questions to fit their own context, by far a more helpful approach for everybody.