The incredible value of "Mentors"

I learned much too late about the value of mentors and seeking them out.

If I had realized this value and had the benefit of a mentor in my early entrepreneurial life I am sure I would have avoided the very many mistakes I have made and the holes I have fallen into. I would have also had someone to relate all my fears, problems, successes and general issues with – this alone would have helped me a great deal.

Instead I have learned the hard way, failing way more than I should have, in order to get the experience necessary to succeed.

My way was NOT the smart way but I didn’t know any better.

In your case I do hope you will spend the time and effort to seek out and find a local mentor or mentors to help you achieve your dreams.

These are found all over nowadays, from school and university, to MBA programs, angel investor groups, government and commercial mentoring groups to you friends, colleagues and peers.

Make the time to work out what skills and areas you think some advice or support will be needed for you right now and for any business or idea you have and then set out to find the best people you can to help advise you.

If you are a seasoned CEO you can still have a mentor, although these tend to be more specialised and cost money vs. the many people will help startups for free.

In a recent article Robert Garvey said:

“A good mentor challenges you to be critical and pushes you to think things through,” says Robert Garvey, professor of mentoring and coaching at Sheffield Hallam University. “But at different times a mentor can also be a listener, a counsellor and someone who offers you access to their networks.”

In some cases mentoring is a simple transfer of knowledge from an old hand. In another, a mentor challenges and supports the entrepreneur to find solutions independently, rather than giving answers.

“Mentoring isn’t telling people what to do. It’s helping them discover what needs to be done so they can make decisions for themselves,” he says.

In my work I have mentored over 100 mentees in every walk of life, idea and stage. I can say that what they most liked was direct help and advice when they had tough decisions to make and also a ‘shoulder’ to cry on when things got tough.

I have also mentored more formally as part of teams at the London Business School, Stanford and HAAS and in these cases I supported work of MBA teams towards their goals of pitching for funds from VCs.

My advise when finding a mentor is first to find one that is not arrogant and self important! Then find one that has domain expertise you might need for an idea or for the problems you are likely to face i.e. if you have a startup don’t get a mentor or a big international law firm. Finally, find one that will align their interests with yours, either just giving you some free advice or if they become more involved in your business then get them to contribute in some way.

I always ask for some “sweat” equity or funds from those wishing to get involved in my startups. But if people help you for free you need to reward them with money when you get some or shares in my view.

On the other had I caution entrepreneurs in the startup phase from paying for advice or help as i have seen some people try and prey on early stage businesses for their own gain and not for the good of the entrepreneur – so be careful.

Doug Richard, the angel investor and former Dragons’ Den panellist, argues that the best mentors contribute equity capital as well as their experience: “There’s nothing more aligning than putting your money at risk.”

Here are sensible precautions that will make mentoring work from the FT:

  • Search for the right person. “Draw up a profile of the sort of person you think can help you, ideally with someone you know well,” recommends mentor Brian Chernett. “Then interview prospective mentors against your criteria.”
  • Be prepared to be challenged. For a mentoring relationship to work the personal chemistry has to be right, says entrepreneur Keith Miller. But don’t choose anyone who resembles you too closely in experience and outlook, advises Prof Robert Garvey. “The role of the mentor is to challenge, not to reinforce what you already think.”
  • Do the due diligence. Successful mentoring depends on an honest relationship between the mentor and the mentee. But entrepreneurs who take mentors into their confidence need to take sensible precautions to safeguard their commercial interests, cautions mentor Brian Sweeney. “Insist on a non-disclosure agreement and check with other businesses that the prospective mentor has respected confidentiality issues in the past.”
  • Have an exit strategy.  “Start with a short-term contract and, at least once a year, evaluate whether the relationship is achieving what you want it to achieve,” Mr Chernett says.

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