A good mentor is invaluable. No matter your experience or where your business is at in its lifecycle there will always be someone with an alternative perspective, differing experiences who can help shape or challenge your thinking often propelling it to new levels – seriously, mentors can make a massive difference.
Mentor styles and availability can vary vastly, some are drop-by-occasionally types due to their own time constraints, others are more actively but informally engaged in your business journey, both of these differ from paid advisors or independent directors – all are valuable in converse with one key difference, you must act upon the directions of your board members.
Mentor value and impact is also determined by your needs – that mentor who was great while you are launching may have no experience with growth, or someone who helped you focus on your own image probably has no experience in scale, others (if you are lucky enough to find these) have a wealth of scale and exit experience. Upshot is as you and your company evolves your mentors will need to change (equally your board composition will too). The key to success is to find a range of mentors – almost like a mentor for all occasions – so you can call on the right person at the right time and ensure you don’t overuse any one person who is donating their advice and mindshare.
Why would anyone want to mentor you?
Bottom line is people want to give back. There are four key things you need to always keep in mind when looking for and trying to capture the imagination of a prospective mentor – Passion, Listening, Respect and Trust. Successful people are busy creating jobs and opportunities themselves so have limited time to offer others on a pro-bono basis. For me I only work with people who demonstrate these attributes, they don’t need to act on my advice but listening to it so they can add another perspective / experience to the decision making mix is critical.
Equally I mentor people from a vast range of industries, differing ages and stages, some are business owners others are just starting out in their careers – my decision making process involves being captured by the passion of the individual followed by whether I trust them, whether they are respectful of others and whether they listen. For personal reasons I do prefer to donate my limited pro-bono mentoring time and mind share to women – primarily because I struggled to find good female mentors when I needed them.
How to find and retain great mentors
Finding mentors takes work – start with people you know, old bosses, old colleagues, people you admired in an adjacent organisation. Then start looking for people, ask your peers, attend events and listen to speakers, join a community like NZRise. Look for people who have forged a path to success that you want to emulate, they may not be a founder but a leader in other terms. Importantly you need to be clear on what you want from any mentor, what aspects of your own capability are you looking to augment through their advice?
As I said before in my experience people want to give back, equally they don’t want to be exploited. If your adhoc mentor is called in to help with every operational decision you are taking the piss and will trade away their good will in no time. So learning how to engage a mentor and when you should be paying for Advisory or Governance services is another key to success.
No matter who you are and where you are in your business lifecycle there is always more to learn, you will always have blind spots and are ripe for disruption. I am terribly lucky with two of my mentors, they buy me lunch once a quarter, grill me (OMG do they grill me) poke holes in my decisions and my personal fortitude, then set me on my way again. We have been doing this for years, them buying lunch started when I was making no money! my fortitude is so much stronger now as my experience grows so the value I get from these lunches takes an exponential step up every quarter and I no longer leave feeling raw realising what I don’t know, now I leave feeling empowered and energised. Both of those states have equal merit of course – it just feels good to have passed through the transition.
This article offers some further advice on finding and retaining a mentor.
There is such a thing as too much advice
On one hand I am saying here have a range of mentors you can call on for valid reasons. However it is really important to learn how to filter advice, what advice is right for you and to be fair there is such as thing as too much advice. I remember working with VentureUp teams one summer, young keen, eager school leavers in an incubator programme learning about life as an entrepreneur (whatever that is). The #1 thing I asked them to learn for themselves was how to filter and parse advice, especially conflicting advice so they can distill it down to find the elements that are right for them to act on.
This article goes somewhere towards providing some guidance on avoiding advisor whiplash. The other side of the coin is to avoid group thinking, don’t just work with mentors who endorse and agree with you – but that’s a post for another day.
To get the most from your mentors, people donating their time and mindshare to help you progress and succeed be very clear on who you call on in what instance, remember to listen and respect their opinion even if it’s not the advice you will act on.
Remember to give back
Mentoring can be a two way street, offer your mentor an ear, perhaps you can offer them insight into a challenge they are tackling? or an introduction to someone they could find valuable in their lives?
Equally remember to make the time to mentor others yourself, forming and maintaining strong and meaningful relationships in business is critical to both your own and your companies success. Listening, being open minded, providing opportunities for connections are all fruitful activities you can offer through mentoring others – paying it forward or whatever label you want to place on this is important to a successful ecosystem which is in turn important for our economy.
Go forth and ask. Let me know how you get on. Happy sharing, Vic.
Victoria MacLennan is a busy business owner, investor and director. She is passionate about diversity, women in both leadership and technology, organisational governance and focuses much of her time on strengthening the New Zealand economy through Digital and Technology. You can read more about Victoria here.