What should you look for in a mentor?

By Bizclik Editor


Perspective, fresh ideas, hindsight and experience are just a few things young business owners crave. But perspective comes with relativity, fresh ideas come from taking a step back, hindsight is born out of retrospect and experience comes from getting your hands dirty; all things that come with time.

Young business owners normally don’t have a wealth of experience to draw from or past examples to reference, but seasoned entrepreneurs and business leaders do. They have made mistakes and have learnt from them, they have had to make difficult tradeoffs to ensure the survival of their company, they’ve faced challenges and set backs but most importantly, they’ve overcome them.

Just like teachers impart their wisdom and help their students flourish, mentors can provide their protégés with invaluable guidance. Having someone to offer inspiration when all your creative juices have been drained, someone to question your thought process and someone to bounce ideas off can mean the difference between a great concept and a fruitful business. 

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PepsiCo CEO, Indra Nooyi once famously said, “I am a product of great mentors, great coaching,” and she is certainly not the only influential figure to credit her success, in part, to the coaching she received during her formative business years. “If I hadn’t had mentors, I wouldn’t be here today,” she says. “Coaches or mentors are very important. They could be anyone - your husband, other family members, or your boss.”

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg also speaks publically about his mentors and the positive influence they’ve had on him and his company. Don Graham (CEO of The Washington Post), Sean Parker (one of Facebook’s early employees and it’s first president) and the late Steve Jobs have all, at some point, offered advice, listened to theories or imparted knowledge which Zuckerberg applied when building his social media empire. When Jobs passed, Zuckerberg posted on his Facebook page, “Steve, thank you for being a mentor and a friend. Thanks for showing that what you build can change the world.”

And Zuckerberg is not the only Facebook executive who advocates business tutors. COO and author of Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg frequently speaks about her mentor Larry Summers, who she met during her junior year at Harvard. Quick to acknowledge the value of Summers’ mentorship, Sandberg advises others to select their mentors carefully in order to gain the most from the connection. “Don’t ask anyone to be your mentor,” she says, rather focus on engendering more productive relationships specific to you needs and problems. Her insistence on taking the time to build a valuable relationship is a nod to the significance and worth she places on good mentorship.

But you don’t have to be an executive at a multi-national corporation to have a mentor, and that person certainly doesn’t have to be Steve Jobs. As Nooyi says, your mentor could be your partner, a close friend, a business associate or colleague. So what should you look for in a mentor (or mentors – you don’t need to limit yourself to one) and how do you know when to heed their advice?


It might sound obvious, but when it comes to choosing a mentor, compatibility is very important. It’s not just about asking the most successful person possible for advice; its about finding someone who you can relate to and learn from. Before you search for a mentor you need to understand some important things about yourself – how do you like to receive criticism? How frequently would you want to meet and discuss ideas? What level of advice are you expecting? Understanding these points will help you find a good match.  


It’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking that your mentor needs to have a background in the same industry, however an outside perspective can often be extremely beneficial. An expert from a different industry is likely to come up with alternative solutions and ideas that you (and your competition) may not have considered. A different perspective can be crucial, particularly when it comes to branding your product for varying audiences, coming up with fresh ideas and approaching a problem from a different angle. When you live and breath your product it can be hard to see the wood for the trees – a mentor with an outside view can help you with this.    


Any mentor you have must believe in you and your product. Passion is not an option, but a prerequisite. As Caroline Ghosn, founder of The Levo League says, its important to “find someone who has a passion for you personally or for the problem you’re solving, and who is willing to give you advice that doesn’t always benefit them.”


Consistency is vital for any business. Your branding, core message, leadership and quality must remain consistent and so too must the communication between you and your mentor. Before you open up to someone about your business, establish a few ground rules. How often will your mentor be able to meet you? How often will they be able to share ideas and offer input? A good mentor needs to have the time to talk and interact - if they’re too busy it defeats the purpose and can leave you feeling deflated. Before you share your business and ideas with a potential coach, make sure they are dedicated to helping you succeed; they need to be mentally present and not preoccupied and they need to commit an agreed amount of time to you and your project.


You don’t have to agree on everything and you can have different opinions – in fact its important that you do have differing approaches to the same problems, that’s the whole point, but your end goal needs to be the same. It’s no good having a mentor whose sole focus is profitability if your objective is one of social enterprise or visa versa. If your core values are misaligned they could end up doing more damage than good. 


It may be tempting to work with the person who, on paper, has the most relevant experience and credentials in your field, but in truth you will gain more from the mentor you trust the most. Find someone who is willing to tell you the things that you don’t want to hear, who will be your harshest critic when necessary and who will give you an open and honest opinion. Sheryl Sandberg is an advocate for asking people both senior and junior to you for specific advice to solve a problem. This will engender much more productive relationships compares to a simplistic, general plea for mentoring. Your greatest mentor could end up being your partner, a parent or a close friend for exactly this reason.


The Internet has made it possible for anybody to seek business advice, but your mentor should be able to offer you something deeper than general pointers in the right direction. “I’ve found it incredibly valuable to have mentors who do more than just advise on strategy, but who are willing to share specifics from their own business. Being able to go behind-the-scenes on winning or losing campaigns is something that you just can’t get without that personal relationship,” says Laura Roeder, founder of LKR. A good mentor won’t just scratch the surface of a problem or offer all-encompassing strategic advice, they will dig deeper, uncover the nitty-gritty and offer specifics. 


In order to succeed in business you need to surround yourself with positivity. Make sure your tutor is forward thinking, proactive and encouraging – listening to a negative and downbeat mentor could be the worst business decision you ever make.


Take a risk and bring a visionary into your ranks; someone who thinks outside the box, who is willing to push boundaries and who will challenge the status quo. Find a mentor who sees the world from a different angle and who can articulate their vision properly. This bold perspective could catalyze the growth of your business.


When all is said and done, you cannot underestimate the value of experience. Ultimately it all boils down to what was discussed at the beginning of the article – with experience comes perspective, and ability to make educated decisions and draw from past scenarios. Experienced business leaders will be able to give you on-point advice; experience takes the guess work out of success and that can only be a good thing. 


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