Owning a business can be lonely. Good sounding boards can be hard to find when most of your friends and family live in the W-2 world. Even business partners may not be able to provide the right perspective, either because of divided responsibilities or their own agendas.
The answer is to have a good business mentor.
There are many definitions of mentoring, including the classic model of someone older and wiser, with more years of industry experience providing advice to an eager, young protégé. I find a broader definition of mentoring to be more useful, perhaps because I place great value on the relationships that help me learn and improve as an entrepreneur and as a person.
First and foremost, mentoring is about growth. I believe any time you have a one-on-one relationship that is fostering personal or professional growth, you can call that mentoring.
So how can you find and develop a good mentoring relationship?
Recognize potential mentors
The first step in cultivating a mentor is to look around your current social and business circles. Odds are good that you may already know someone who could be a great mentor for you, even if you’ve never thought of them that way before. Ask yourself, who is the savviest business person I know? Who do I respect for their common sense and industry acumen? What person should I emulate to be more successful?
It’s very important that you don’t limit yourself to people who look like Warren Buffett (although I’m sure he’d be an awesome mentor). And keep in mind, a mentor can be anyone who makes you smarter. That can even include someone younger than you: My own business mentor happens to be 10 years my junior. You may also want to consider potential mentors in specific areas, such as marketing, finance or human resources.
If no one comes to mind, it’s time to widen your circle through networking.
After you identify a handful of potential mentors, you’ll want to reach out and refresh those acquaintances. Coffees and lunches are the traditional overtures, but phone calls and video chats can also serve the purpose for the geographically challenged.
Have a specific question or issue in mind to make the best use of the mentor’s time. Perhaps you’re trying to decide how to allocate your advertising dollars, or maybe you need a QuickBooks tutorial. Whatever the matter at hand, you’ll get to check out the mentor’s style. Sometimes you need a mentor who knows the answer from years of experience, but other times you just need someone who will roll up their sleeves and help you figure it out.
Of course, you’ll also be trying to make a good impression. Taffy Williams, serial entrepreneur and mentor for Queen City Forward (among others), describes how he decides who he takes on.
“I have to love the business or technology, and I have to like the people involved. Why would I waste my time working with someone who won’t listen?”
One of the best ways you can impress a potential adviser is to take their proffered wisdom to heart. You don’t have to blindly follow their advice, but be sure to follow up with a recap of what was discussed and subsequent updates on your insights and actions.
Let’s do lunch
There are three common elements to a successful mentoring relationship: expectations, schedule and reciprocity. Put another way, what do you want from your mentor, how often do you want it, and what does your mentor get in return?
Informal mentoring might look like lunch once a quarter, where you discuss whatever is top of mind and simply pick up the meal check. A highly formal relationship might look like weekly accountability calls for which your mentor receives a small amount of equity in your company. The important thing is to clarify all three elements to ensure the relationship is a win-win for both parties.
Finally, once blessed with a good mentor, be sure to pay it forward.
Jennie Wong, Ph.D., is a Charlotte-based executive coach, author of “Ask the Mompreneur,” and founder of the social shopping site CartCentric.com. Follow her on Twitter @DrJennieWong.
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