Who Needs a Mentor? You Do
Someone who's been there, done that can offer invaluable insight.
By: Eve Gumpel | 09/03/2009
If you're an entrepreneur, it's likely you would benefit from having a mentor, suggests mentoring expert Beth Carvin, president and CEO of HR consulting firm Nobscot Corp.
A successful woman entrepreneur has probably faced some of the obstacles you're encountering. She's learned what worked and what didn't work and can pass her advice along. "Why reinvent the wheel?" Carvin asks.
That's not to say your mentor has to be a woman. Carvin says a male mentor can help overcome some of the special challenges female entrepreneurs often face. "Women in business are seen as being either nice or competent, but not both," Carvin says. "Having a male mentor to back you up and vouch for you can help you past the credibility gap."
Carvin describes a mentor as a guide: "It should be someone you admire and respect, someone who can help you think about some of the issues and decisions you come across." A mentor isn't a manager, a trainer or a coach. A mentor doesn't make decisions for you. He or she helps you out, Carvin says, by asking the right questions and helping you come to the right decisions.
You might be seeking a successful entrepreneur who's moved a company from startup to maturity. On the other hand, if you're facing specific obstacles, you might want someone who's been through those particular challenges. For example, you might be a restaurateur who needs financing and you want a mentor who found financing for her restaurant. Or perhaps you're a woman in a male-dominated industry and you want to work with a mentor who's faced those challenges already.
Your choice of mentor depends on what you need. You have to ask yourself, "What are the challenges I'm facing?" or perhaps, "What are my weaknesses?" A mentor can help you stay centered, grounded and not feeling pressured.
Carvin emphasizes that a mentorship isn't an open-ended relationship. It should have a beginning and an end. A mentorship should be a minimum of six months and maximum of 18 months, she says.
Finding a Mentor
There are many places you can look for a mentor:
- Check within your industry. Your trade association may have a mentoring group, or someone in the organization could point you to a mentor.
- Your college or university might have alumni mentoring groups.
- A mentor could be a former boss or co-worker you admired.
- You could reach out to someone within the industry--a speaker who impressed you, for example.
- Use social networking sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn to find a mentor.
How do I approach this person?
Don't just jump in, Carvin advises.
- Pick the method you'll use for getting in contact with the individual. Will it be a phone call, e-mail, snail mail letter, or do you want to be introduced by a third party?
- Prepare what you plan to say.
- Explain why you're seeking a mentor and why you're selecting that individual as a possible mentor.
- Describe the way in which you think she can help you.
- You might want to indicate how much of the person's time you plan to take and how you plan to communicate.
- Then close the sale: Ask if she'll do it. You might indicate why it would be beneficial for her (see Carvin's post, "The 10 Best Reasons to Be a Mentor"). There are many benefits to being a mentor, Carvin says. "Sometimes it can bring back the enthusiasm you [the mentor] had in the early stages of your business."
- Offer some available times to set up a meeting.
"You'll get some rejections," Carvin says. "This is a bit like selling. Have a long list of people you might want to contact."
If you already know the individual, so much the better. In that case, Carvins says, "It's a warm call instead of a cold call."
Carvin says a mentoring relationship will often grow into a friendship. But that isn't necessary. In fact, Carvin says you can have a very successful mentorship without ever forming a friendship.
Working out the logistics of a mentoring relationship is important. How are you going to communicate and how often? Will you meet in person, over the phone or through e-mail? Will you be spending once a month or once a week on this?
"There's no right or wrong answer," Carvin says. It might depend on the particular mentor and how much you can ask without becoming a nuisance.
Commonly, Carvin says, you might touch base on the phone for an hour once a month and communicate via e-mail either once a week or every other week in between phone meetings. On the other hand, if you're in a critical phase of your business--perhaps the financing stage--you might request weekly meetings for a certain period of time.
The first few meetings should cover each party's expectations for the mentorship. For example, will confidential or personal issues be up for discussion? Is anything off limits? Once that's settled, goals should be set: Decide what you want to accomplish together in the next 12 months.
A mentor doesn't replace more informal networking and learning along the way. You'll still want to kick issues around with your networking group or association. Your mentor might say, "Make sure you ask them about such and such. Then come back and tell me what they said."
Your mentor can help put into perspective all the bits of information you get from books, articles, friends, associates and colleagues. Maybe you've read about something you think might work in your business. Your mentor might say, "Wow, I think you're on to something," or, alternatively, "You're dreaming!" Says Carvin, "A mentor can say those hard things a friend can't say."
Embarking on a mentoring relationship isn't an informal process. It takes careful preparation. Use this advice as a starting point to help you find the right mentor, so you and your business will thrive.