I'm at a point where I think I really need a mentor. I have a great staff, accountant, lawyer, and banker, but none of them has any experience as an entrepreneur. Though they help to balance my ambition and keep me grounded in reality, I need something more. My company isabout 10 years old, with just over $2 million in sales and a staff of about 25. I'm hoping we'll make the Inc. 500 this year. It would be great to have a successful entrepreneur I could turn to for guidance. Besides not knowing how to find one, I'm unsure how these relationships typically work. Do people pay mentors, give them bonuses based on performance, or seek advice purely on goodwill? And what expectations should I have for a mentor?
—DELCIE BEAN, CEO, PARAGUS STRATEGIC IT
Mentoring is a subject near to my heart. I had some great mentors early in my career, and in recent years I've been devoting well over half of my time to mentoring others. In the process, I've developed some strong opinions on the subject, which I shared with Delcie Bean.
First, I don't think you should ever have to pay a mentor. An adviser who asks to be paid is not a mentor. He or she is a consultant, and the relationship is a commercial one. A mentoring relationship has to be based strictly on mutual respect. A mentor should be motivated by nothing more than the desire to help. The person receiving the mentoring should be there to learn.
Second, a mentor's role is not to advise you but rather to give you a different way of thinking. I often have to remind my mentees that I'm not telling them what they should do. I'm simply offering another perspective, based on my experience. It's critical that they consider what I say but then make their own decisions. Otherwise, if things don't work out, they will blame my advice—and miss out on the opportunity to learn from the best teacher of all: experience. In that sense, a mentor is not so much an adviser as a sounding board.
As for finding a mentor, there is no particular formula. My mentees have come from various sources—requests from friends, meetings, conferences, responses to this column, community organizations, calls out of the blue. I suggested Delcie look wherever he was likely to encounter entrepreneurs with more experience than he has. That could be a chamber of commerce meeting, a business conference, or an industry gathering. Service Corps of Retired Executives, or SCORE, is worth a try as well. I thought he might also look through recent Inc. 5000 lists for companies in his region.
Beyond that, I urged him to start slowly and let the relationship evolve. "You can simply ask for occasional counseling along the lines of: 'Would you mind if I came by now and then to bounce some ideas off you?'" I said. I warned him that he might face rejection, but overall he'd find that most people who have built successful companies will be happy to help.