Entrepreneurs, especially women, can be made to believe that they are destined to fail if they don't have a cadre of amazing mentors guiding their every move. But mentorship is much more organic than books on empowerment would have you believe. The best guides are often already in your network, and would never think to describe themselves as "mentors."
When started my company at 26, I didn't receive any advice about finding and keeping the right mentors. If I could go back and mentor myself, here's what I'd say.
Seek the right relationships.
A practical way to foster a meaningful mentor relationship is to think about the type of position you'd like to be in in five years. Then consider people in your network, both professionally and socially, who are both where you want to be and seem open to helping you along the way.
These are the people you should start to build relationships with.
Many people would like a business celebrity like Sheryl Sandberg or Damon John to be their mentor, but these types would be so far removed from your everyday struggles and decisions that they would be limited in the practical advice that they can give you.
If your mentor can't relate to your current situation, then the relationship will lack the perspective necessary to make any significant breakthroughs. Ideally, you'll want to seek out those who are still very involved in day-to-day business.
Once you find the right people to start tactfully seeking advice from, you'll almost never verbalize "You are my mentor."
For your first outreach, keep it simple.
Mentoring often starts innocuously, and in ways that you may not first think of as mentoring.
I've met future mentors by striking up a conversation at a conference, reaching out to someone on LinkedIn and through mutual connections over email. The best way to kick off your "mentoring" relationship is in person or over the phone, and with a specific request about an issue you're facing.
Never attempt to start a relationship with a potential mentor by asking them for a favor. From your first meeting, you'll be able to determine in a low-pressure way if you have a rapport and if their perspective is relevant to you.
To keep them around, keep them in the loop.
So now that you've established a bond with someone, how do you keep them interested in continuing to guide you?
Simple: Keep your mentor casually in the loop about the things they've helped you with.
A mentor's end of the bargain is the satisfaction of knowing that they're helping someone, so a great way to sustain the relationship is a quick email every few weeks letting them know how their advice played out. This also makes it easier the next time you want to reach out for some quick guidance.
Assuming your mentor is still active in their field, the time that they will be able to dedicate to you will be limited. So it's usually better to contact them on an ad-hoc basis than attempting to schedule a regular check-in.
Always remember that your mentor is not your boss.
Mentors are great resources to get a fresh perspective during a dilemma, or to help you find potential blind spots. But their advice is just one data point you'll use to come to your ultimate decisions.
The more viewpoints you gather, the less emotional your decision-making process becomes. The more factual you can be, the more ideas can be brought to the table, and the higher the likelihood that you'll end up at the right conclusion.
So while your mentors are, inherently, people you respect, never forget that nobody knows your business as well as you.