Finding Mentors

In our September 2005 column, "Beyond Getting to Yes," we talked about how women's natural relationship-building skills can help them in business. As women, we use this talent to build connections both close and casual; for relating, connecting and empathizing with others to give us an edge when negotiating deals; to help us win us better terms with vendors and suppliers; and to build rapport with our colleagues and staff. But there's another way in which these relationship-building skills can provide us with an edge in business: We can use them to help us find valuable business mentors, both male and female, among our casual relationships.

In high school, we instinctively knew that it was useful to look beyond our close circle of friends and tap into our casual relationships for advice. We never thought twice about asking the stylish girl in homeroom where she bought that great pair of jeans or fabulous shade of lipstick. However, as we grew up and left academia for the working world, we were taught that the best mentors are found via "acceptable" channels: senior managers in our companies, fellow alumni, business luminaries, and close friends. Although these sources are helpful, we can do even better by using our innate relationship-building talent to tap into the rich vein of potential mentors among our informal connections.

Skeptical about this approach? Here are a couple of examples that may convince you that this truly can be an effective channel for gaining valuable advice.

Elaine's manicurist wanted to open her own nail salon and needed advice. While Elaine's nails were soaking (a captive audience!), she told Elaine of her plans to get her own place and asked for some suggestions. Elaine called on her husband, Norm, and together they provided her manicurist with essential advice about certain key decisions she needed to make when starting up. Their counsel helped her avoid a major trap--an overly restrictive store lease that would have sunk her fledgling nail salon.

Pamela recently tapped the power of informal connections, as well. She'd been looking for a good accountant but hadn't found one that was both local and affordable. She'd asked a number of people for referrals but had come up empty-handed. One day while hanging out at the local Brazilian café, she ran into a woman from her Latin dance class. While chit-chatting, Pamela found out that this woman was an accountant who worked with growing businesses. She immediately took down her name and number to set up a consultation.

If you're ready to harness your natural relationship-building power in this way, start by thinking about the casual connections you make as you go about your day-to-day life. Perhaps you commiserate with the other women while sweating through your weekly power yoga class, chat with the guy who owns the local UPS store when you drop off a package, or catch up with the manager of your favorite coffee shop when you stop by for your daily cappuccino. All of these contacts can be a fertile source of mentors and business advice.

Next, start telling everyone your plans for your business. The more you put your goals out to the world, the more assistance you can attract. Talk to the sweaty woman you see on the bike next to you at the 7 a.m. spinning class and tell her what you're doing--she just might be the top lawyer in the city for your kind of business or run a successful company in a related field. By talking up your business plans to your casual relationships, you provide the chance for others to share their knowledge or experiences.

Make sure you pay attention to successful business owners outside of your own field, too. Don't assume that your friend who owns the popular deli on the corner can't offer you valuable advice for your home accessories store. Even though he might not have direct experience in your field, all successful business owners know what it takes to run a healthy business. Your pal might be able to provide you with an invaluable education in key business fundamentals, such as cash flow management, attracting walk-in customers, or inventory control.

Lastly, don't be afraid to ask for help. As women, we oftentimes feel more comfortable helping others than asking for help ourselves, but don't let this stop you from seeking assistance. If someone can't help you, they'll let you know, but don't take a "no" personally. As every good salesperson knows, every "no" is one step closer to a "yes."

As entrepreneurs, we know that building a business is fraught with many challenges. Having access to experienced business advice can help us avoid many pitfalls and dead ends along the way. If we use our natural female talent for relationship building to draw on our casual connections as a source of potential mentors, we'll increase our chances of building a successful and profitable business!

What challenges have you struggled with as a woman business owner? Write us at and let us know!