When people come to me with questions about how to start or run their business, one of the most frequent pieces of advice I dispense is: Find yourself a great mentor.
The reason a great mentor is so effective is that you can learn from someone who has already walked down your path and therefore has tested, practical advice. There are many flavors of mentors, the major categories being:
- The technical expert: Mentors in this category are recognized in their particular industry as being the best at what they do. Sometimes, however, they don’t have a well-rounded skill set. Larry Ellison of Oracle comes to mind when I think of someone who has great capacity for creating a very successful technology company worth billions of dollars, but is known as being quite Neandrathal in his leadership style. You look to technical mentors to expose you to the smartest, most creative thinking in your field, not to bare your soul and share your personal fears.
- The wise elder: Mentors in this category tend to have both personal and professional insight that they developed over many years. Yoda comes to mind for a mentor in this category. These types of mentors are often great for big-picture advice such as “How do I know if I can really trust a new strategic partner?” or “How do I know what will be the key needs in my market 10 years from now?” or “How can I maintain a healthy marriage and still be a successful businessperson?”
- The few-steps-ahead peer: Mentors in this category are peers who you respect and admire and have an admirable track record in your field. I have a number of people in my life who fit this category, and I have chosen them because they set a bar that is challenging but attainable in the short term. They make me think “If she is doing it, then I can too!” This kind of mentor is often great for nuts-and-bolts advice such as “What are the top 5 things I should consider when starting a new website?” or “What are the best marketing strategies for reaching parents of Autistic teenagers?” or “How do I register a trade name or set up a patent for a new product?”
Characteristics of a great mentoring relationship:
- Encouragement. A good mentor will not only provide you with valuable advice, he or she will also help you deal with the fear and stress involved in growing professionally and making a big change.
- Reciprocity. Enduring mentoring relationships have mutual benefit built into them. Your mentor may have years of experience in his or her field, but you also must bring something to the table. Perhaps they are less familiar with technology so you can help them build a website. Whatever you do, make sure they are not the only ones offering support and advice.
- Chemistry. A mentoring relationship is just that, a relationship. You must truly enjoy each other’s company if it is to last. If you put each other at ease and make each other laugh, that will make your time together energizing and engaging.
- Gratitude. Don’t ever forget to acknowledge and thank your mentor for his guidance and advice. Lavish gifts or hollow praise are not necessary. Good, old fashioned heartfelt thanks in the form of a handwritten note or sincere comment work the best. Let him know what his advice meant to you and how it changed the course of your life.
- Mutual respect. Even if people are very well-known in their field, they don’t want to be surrounded by feet-kissing grovelers who deem themselves “not worthy.” Let me rephrase that. The mentors you want do not want to be surrounded by arse-kissers. Be confident and present yourself as a humble, less-experienced equal.
So where do you find mentors?
The paradox of finding a good mentor is that you can’t really look for them, they just show up. The process reminds me of the children’s book Are You My Mother? A new little bird pokes out of its egg when its mother is off to find a worm, and it falls out of its perch on a tree. Since it has never seen its mother before, it goes up to every creature it can find and asks “Are you my mother?” If you look too hard for a mentor, you will force the process and find yourself asking everyone “Are you my mentor?” That is why I think so many corporate-sponsored mentoring programs struggle, since they try to manufacture what is essentially an organic process.
That said, there are some places you can look for mentors.
- Work: Who do you really admire at work? Do you have former managers who took personal interest in you and offered great advice?
- School: Do you have any favorite professors who really influenced your life? Are there collegues from business school that you always admired?
- Social or spiritual institutions: Professional associations, churches or networking groups are great places to look for smart, supportive people.
- Family. Your parents or siblings can have natural mentoring qualities that help you grow and develop. I don’t have any professional success or resounding failure without sharing it with my sister and Dad. I don’t have any personal challenge or success without sharing it with my Mom.
- Research. You may learn about some of your ideal mentors by reading their books or hearing about them in the press. Don’t be scared off if someone appears too “big” for you. I found one of my dearest mentors Martha Beck by watching her on Oprah, then reading her book. I knew that she was really busy and well-known, but I just set my sights on getting to know her personally. It took a couple of years, but now we have a wonderful relationship. I have had Jim Collins on my list of “ideal mentors” for some time now, and I am sure that sooner or later our paths will cross.
Tips for kicking off a mentoring relationship:
- Introduce or re-introduce yourself. If you are approaching someone for the first time or if it has been awhile since you have spoken to them, introduce yourself and get re-acquainted. “Hi Jim, this is Bob. I used to work for Suzanne in the Business Development department at Intel. I was the one with the poor choice in ties – do you remember me? I was just thinking about you and wondering how you are doing.”
- Find ways to stay connected. Find out where they “hang out” professionally and see if you can get to know them better. Invite them to coffee or lunch and find out what they are working on and what they are interested in.
- Ask for advice once, then see how it goes. This is where the organic process comes in. A natural mentor will be someone who willingly shares advice and information. Don’t rush into things. Just ask for advice once and if they seem open, keep the dialogue going . If they become short or reticent, back off gently and thank them for the advice they gave.
- Offer support and advice back. When you find people, information or resources that you feel would benefit your mentor, let them know. Send articles of interest, make personal introductions or let them know about good products or programs.
Perhaps the best way to create a force field of attraction for a mentor is to be one yourself. Share what you know with others, and help them to learn and grow. Your ideal mentor will be watching you too and may just approach you first.