Mentoring relationships can yield a lifetime of value if you put in some effort
Over my career I have been lucky to have had some amazing mentors who have invested in my development. In an effort to pay it forward, I’ve done my best to make time for mentorship with many employees and first time startup CEO’s whenever I can. This idea of paying it forward should be central to an entrepreneur’s ethos, and it usually is, which means for entrepreneurs there should be a lot of potential mentors in your community. But it takes work on both sides to set up mentor-mentee relationships for success.
Choosing your mentors
As a mentee, seeking personal growth through teachers may not be a one size fits all approach. Your goal is to pick the right person for each area you want to refine. I have had mentors who were great in some areas, and kinda sucked at others. For example, they could be amazing at finding and hiring talented people, but terrible at managing them long-term. They may be brilliant analytical operators, but miss on inspiring their teams to achieve the loftiest goals. They could be amazing deal-makers, but not so great on product strategy. That’s okay! Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Decide what you are trying to learn and find the best people to help you learn in the area where their strengths lie.
Sometimes, getting perspective and learning can be as simple as being in the room when things happen, to learn by exposure. Even better, you should feel free to ask questions about why someone handled a situation a certain way. Other times, it may be more formal back and forth coaching in an area where you know you need to improve. It may just be a simple run through of how you plan to handle a situation, to get feedback and advice on the approach. Or a “post-mortem” call where you ask to talk about what happened and how you could improve. You are not looking for compliments, nor a pat on the back; you are looking for structured feedback to help you get better.
In choosing a mentor, ask yourself these questions:
- Do they have qualities or skills I need to build?
- Do they have character that I respect?
- Do they live their life in a way that I want to emulate?
- Do they take a personal interest in me, and my development?
- Will they pick up the phone or text me back when need advice or guidance?
Getting the most from your mutual investment
As someone who needs guidance (and we all do), remember that choosing people from whom you hope to spend time learning is a two-way street. Time is limited for everyone, and even more so for some of the best leaders and experts. For a prospective mentor, this means they must make a careful choice of who they choose to invest time in beyond a passing meeting. For that reason it’s easiest to find opportunities for interaction when you work together on something. You can seek out opportunities when you take your next job, build your advisory board for a new company, join a club in an area of interest, or decide to spend time with someone on a shared interest area such as a non-profit.
For a prospective mentor, they must make a careful choice of who they choose to invest time in beyond a passing meeting. Beyond having some shared goal (e.g., a company or project you are working on together) there are other factors a mentor may consider. Does the mentee show raw talent? Do they possess the drive to follow through? Do they show trust in the directions given? If it feels like they are defensive or overly argumentative about feedback, that’s a quick way to lose interest because no one wants to waste valuable time on someone who isn’t open to receiving the information.
On the mentee side, once you find one or more people you respect who are willing to spend time with you on your development goals, you should try to give them reasons to keep investing in you. To keep a mentor engaged and “take the call”, it’s important to have both patience and self awareness to know the mentor won’t always have time, and self awareness to know that skills require time to develop over multiple instances. Doing something once doesn’t mean you’ve “got it” – it means you did that thing once. Getting feedback over time until you hone a skill is what should be the goal, and your mentor should be communicating how you are progressing in these areas. There are many nuances to aspects of business and certain skills, so until you have seen enough variation it’s not likely you have mastered the skill. Beyond that, you could teach them something new as well, like how to use Instagram or Slack. Maybe you can help them find a new hire they are looking for from your network. That creates mutual value that can stand the test of time.
You never lose the need for mentors to support your development, no matter how experienced you might be. Whether it’s handling investors or board members, perfecting your craft in technology or marketing, managing a tough employee situation, or even finding work-life balance, we all need support to live and work with intention and purpose. For mentors, the reward can also be great. For me, many mentees have become peers over time, which is truly a reward you hope to see in life. With a strong bond based on mutual value and trust, mentor relationships can provide a support network that can truly last a lifetime, and bring value on both sides.