Whether you’re a new small business owner, an experienced entrepreneur at an important crossroads, or a CEO looking to take your company to the next level, finding the right mentor can mean the difference between failure and success.
“Mentors played a crucial role in every stage of my development as an entrepreneur,” says Nav CEO Levi King. “I opened my first business thanks to the encouragement and support of a boss who saw my potential and urged me to take a risk. Major steps in Nav’s evolution came about when single, timely observations from seasoned advisers caused me to see a problem in a new light, or revealed an opportunity I might not have considered otherwise.”
Correctly utilized, a knowledgeable mentor is an invaluable source of wisdom, inspiration and guidance. But how do you go about locating one, and how should you use them once you have?
Decide What You Need In a Mentor
Before you start looking for a mentor, sit down with your business plan and write out a list of the goals and action steps you feel confident about, as well those you’re uncertain of. Prioritize. If you were granted a 10-minute Q&A with the smartest entrepreneur in the world, which items on the list would make the meeting?
Having a clear idea of your strengths and weaknesses will help guide you to a suitable mentor and give them assurance that you mean business. In the words of Indonesian economist and writer Toba Beta: “It is written, ‘seek and ye shall find.’ But first, ‘imagine what you seek.’ Otherwise, you will end up searching everything everywhere forever.”
Look for Mentors in Lots of Places
Mentors can be found in lots of places. Consider looking here:
- Trade associations. Trade associations are organizations composed of and funded by businesses that operate in the same industry. Many trade associations offer mentoring services to new entrepreneurs, including one-on-one meetings and group sessions that focus on building your network.
- Free government programs. SCORE mentors, Small Business Development Centers, and Women’s Business Centers are just a few of the mentoring resources offered by federal and state government to small business owners. They usually provide both online and in-person consultation.
- Startup events. Startup events are education programs designed to connect local entrepreneurs and teach, train and energize startups. They’re an exciting and powerful resource for feedback and ideas as well as solving common problems.
- Your own personal network. Sometimes the best mentors are those nearest at hand. Among your family, friends, colleagues, and associates, are there any that stand out for entrepreneurial acumen, devotion, and success?
Be a Thoughtful Mentee
A good mentor is a treasure house of both general and specific information, but you’ll save them time and maximize their effectiveness if you rely on them for specifics and do the general homework yourself.
When my ex-wife and I opened a small business a few years ago, for example, we were trying to decide whether to incorporate. I knew that I could call upon a savvy business acquaintance for advice, but I also knew that he was a very busy guy. Instead of asking him about the advantages of incorporation in general, we researched that information ourselves and concluded that incorporating was the best step before approaching him with a specific question: S Corp or LLC?
His answer was quick, definite, and invaluable, and the whole exchange occurred in a couple of text messages. This set us up for positive interactions in the future, but it wouldn’t have been possible if Amy and I hadn’t made up our minds about the bigger picture first.
Keep an Open Mind
If the basic requirement of a mentor is to be available, the basic requirement of a mentee is to be teachable. Remember to be humble and appreciative, yet forthright when something’s unclear to you. Avoid preconceptions about the form your relationship with your mentor will take—a text message is just as helpful as the same advice delivered over coffee, and much more efficient in the bargain.
As you search for a mentor, don’t forget to look to the past for a rich source of instruction and motivation. Study the lives and works of the business leaders who most inspire you. “I owe a lot to living mentors,” says Nav’s Levi King, “but some of my greatest lessons have come from people over a century dead talking to me from the pages of a biography.”
This article was originally written on August 22, 2016 and updated on January 29, 2021.