*By Antonia Dillon, Wife, Mother, Blogger, and Entrepreneur*
As an entrepreneur without any prior business knowledge, I found that one of the most frustrating parts of business ownership was the learning curve. “Common” knowledge doesn’t feel so common when you’re venturing into unfamiliar territory, ya know?
Yes, mistakes, oversights, and #facepalm moments are bound to happen while owning a business, and it’s easy to look at another person’s success and think they got there magically or by themselves. However, the reality is it takes a village to build a business, and a crucial part of your “village” needs to be a mentor.
A mentor is a lesser-known, but still super important resource, and I want to outline not only what mentors are and why they are important, but also how to nurture such a critical and beneficial relationship.
What Exactly Is A Mentor And Why Do You Need One?
Let’s start with a common understanding of what a mentor is and isn’t before we move further.
What is a mentor?
I like to think of a mentor as someone who already is where you’re trying to go in your life or business, and quite frankly, there is value in having a number of mentors who are at various stages of “ahead” of you – whether they are few steps, years, or DECADES ahead. This is a person who will advise, teach, and support you for what is, hopefully, years to come. They are invested in you, and your success is their success.
How can mentors help?
Whether you are trying to climb the corporate ladder and elevate your career or increase your profitability for your own business, there is no need to “go it alone.” A mentor can help you navigate through the challenges of corporate life or business ownership by offering their wisdom and maybe even their personal connections and resources to help move you forward. Mentors help by talking through different scenarios and situations with you, helping you make better business decisions much faster than if you were to think about them alone, in a vacuum. They give you a broader perspective of your business challenges when you may be too close to the problem to see the solution.
Who your mentor SHOULDN’T be:
Anyone who already has a close personal or professional relationship with you should be out of the running for the “mentor” title. This includes friends, your parents, and (even though it might seem like an easy fit) your boss. You need your mentor to be as objective and unbiased as possible and simply have a genuine interest in your success. Turning someone who has another role in your life into a mentor can be risky as they may (consciously or not) give advice or feedback that benefits them in some way. Your mentor should JUST be your mentor and nothing more.
Finding the right mentor is not easy, so that makes it more important to cultivate your mentor-mentee relationship once you have one.
Here are five golden rules to ensure you and your mentor remain close for years to come:
1. Know Their Background
Before you reach out to your potential mentor, you’ll want to know a little bit of their history. You need to know this for two reasons: First, identifying similarities can really help you solidify your connection early on and break the ice. Bonds are always stronger when you have common ties.
Second, having a strong understanding of their background ensures you’ll know exactly how they can best help you. What is it about that person that makes them a good candidate to be a mentor? What in their previous background could you utilize to help you move your business forward? You don’t want to waste your time — and theirs — with someone whose experience may not be in line with your needs.
2. Be On Time When You Meet
Ahh, punctuality. Some people got it and some people… well, they don’t. And let me be the first to admit that I am usually firmly in the don’t category. However, meeting my mentor is one of the few occasions where I absolutely make an extra-special effort to be early. I have to plan for early and not just on time to account for getting lost, looking for a parking space, etc. because, guaranteed, those things will happen to me. Being punctual shows that I respect their time and I’m taking our meeting seriously.
3. Own the Relationship
Since your mentor is going out of her/his way to advise, mold, and guide you, you gotta make sure you’re doing your fair share too. Make their lives easier by taking responsibility for the relationship.
For example, stay away from phrases like “just put some time on my calendar for when you’re free!” Take initiative and (of course, while being mindful of their schedule) send the meeting invite for your calendars. If you said you’d get back to them about something, make sure you do. Follow up and follow through in the ways you promised you would. Keeping their lives simple will surely keep those mentor/mentee meet-ups coming!
4. Be Prepared
A formal agenda is certainly not necessary, and there’s nothing wrong with shooting the breeze for the first 10 minutes or so, but know what you want to cover when you meet with your mentor. Make sure your meetings are productive by bringing a current business problem you’re facing and some thought-starters for solutions.
Oh, and bring a way to take notes! My preference is always an old-school notepad and a pen, but that’s because I’m a Xennial who remembers when you accessed the internet via an AOL CD that came in the mail… A small tablet, laptop, or phone would work too (though I think looking down at your phone to type while someone else is talking could look… well, rude. So just be mindful there.)
5. Be Open to Feedback and Critiques, but Don’t be Afraid to Disagree
I admit this might be a fine line to toe, but you want to find the sweet spot of being agreeable without being a pushover. Nobody likes a contrary know-it-all (I constantly have to tell my kids.) So it would be wise to stay open-minded and not shoot down the ideas your mentor shares too quickly.
You want your mentor to challenge and critique you. It’s a part of what helps you grow and get stronger. As long as their feedback is coming from a well-meaning place – and is not cruel or mean – check your ego at the door and stay “coachable.”
But, you also want to disagree if something doesn’t feel right. If I’m ever on the fence about an idea my mentor has thrown out there, one of my favorite go-to lines is: “Tell me more about that.” This opens the door for more conversation around the idea and gives you both the opportunity to expound on your thoughts.
‘Pick mentors who help you feel safe, challenged, and encouraged’ – Martin Kipp
Mentors are a valued resource for folks who are corporate- and entrepreneur-focused alike, so once you find the right person to mentor you, nurture and protect that relationship so it will age like fine wine!
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you have a mentor? If so, do you have any tips to share on finding and keeping one? If not, why not?
Antonia Dillon is a wife, mother, blogger, and entrepreneur. Her blog Wake. Coffee. Slay. is dedicated to informing, inspiring, and empowering new and aspiring women entrepreneurs. Antonia is also Founder and CEO of Binefit, an on-demand storage company serving Detroit and its surrounding suburbs.