Finding and Working with a Mentor
By David Hehman
Being a successful entrepreneur is all about learning, and finding a mentor who can teach you the ropes is a real gift. From my own experience of finding a great mentor, and later, becoming a mentor, I’ve gleaned some helpful principles.
“You can do it.” “What do you think?” “What did you learn from this?” “How did the sales call go?”
If you are around someone who asks you great questions, and listens for your answers, before giving advice, you may have found yourself the perfect mentor. From my own experience of finding a great mentor, and later, becoming a mentor, I’ve gleaned some helpful principles.
Asking Questions, Not Telling
My best mentor, a VP at Microsoft had a unique ability never to tell me what to do. It was all about asking questions, using the Socratic method as a way of teaching me. “What do you think will happen if you drop out of school?” he would ask, as I resisted returning to college, so that I could keep working with him. He didn’t tell me to go back, but as we talked, it was clear that I needed to finish my education. I made the decision, but he led me to it.
Genuinely Interested in What’s Best for You
My mentor at Microsoft could have had other agendas. After all, he worked for Microsoft, and it would have been in the company’s interest to keep me working as a smart, but low paid intern. However, my mentor genuinely wanted what was best for me, not for his career or company. Later, he seed funded for my first real venture, again wanting my success.
Open, Honest, Feedback at Every Opportunity.
Honesty is the name of the game with mentors. You are not looking for someone to make you feel good, or to be a yes person. Feedback must be kind, as well as honest. You are using a mentor in order to learn, and nothing helps learning more than seeing where there is room for growth or change. A good mentor will use every opportunity to teach you when they see opportunity for growth. After one sales call, right in the parking lot, my mentor said, “Here are three things you did great. Here are three things to work on.” The timeliness of the feedback was essential as I knew exactly what he was referring to.
Creates Confidence to Grow
A good mentor will push you to do things you don’t think you can do. It’s not that they will push you to take risks that you can’t afford. But, for example, you may feel you don’t have experience presenting your company to an angel investing group. Or you may feel you are too new to address an entrepreneur conference. Your mentor will help you find the reasons that you can do it. Their job is to give you confidence. “You can do it.” Those words are the most important words you can ever get from someone.
How to Choose a Mentor
Start by seeking people in your industry and community who have achieved a lot. You might ask friends who they know is a leading person in your field that is approachable. Know what their track record is, and how they are regarded in the community. Be sure they have integrity.
Then see if you can go to lunch with them. Establish that you like them, trust them, and respect them.
If you are open to learning, ask them if they would be willing to mentor you. The relationship could be long lasting or it could just be for help during start-up or expansion.
How to Work with Mentor
Ideally, there is regular face to face contact with your mentor. You might invite them to accompany you on key presentations so that they can give you feedback. You would call them to ask advice when making strategic decisions.
Most of all, respect their time. They are not there to run your business, sit on your board (although they may be board members) or hold your hand. They are your teachers, available to inspire you to do it yourself. Remember, you can do it.
SCORE has a very well respected mentoring program that draws on the skills of retired executives. Start your search in your community of associates, and if you haven’t found the right person, then investigate SCORE Mentors