By Kendra Walsh
Expert Impact, UK
Mentors can turbo-charge your business. So how do you get one?
Anyone who’s run a business knows that it’s really, really hard work. Things go wrong. Your organisation seems to mutate every other month. So what do you do?
Ask for help! Help from people who know what they’re talking about, who have been there and done it, and who can counsel you through the particular challenge at hand.
This is the role mentors play. They’re well-informed advisors. They might be entrepreneurs, executives, or industry experts. Ideally, you’ll have a mix of mentors you can call on, in time this group might eventually become your advisory board.
Mentoring isn’t typically as structured and formal as some people imagine. Mentors might not even call themselves “mentors”.
They’re just people who like what you’re doing, and provide good counsel on how to do it.
So, how do you find them and get the most from these relationships?
Why are you looking for a mentor?
Before you think about who to approach, you need to zero in on exactly what you want help with. You can then target people likely to be interested in that challenge.
Put yourself in the potential mentor’s shoes. If you ask them for “general help with my business”, it sounds unfocused. It doesn’t seem tailored to them. It sounds broad and openended and messy, when they are short on time.
Better would be a request like: “Whether we approach social investors or take a loan;” “Whether a new website is worth the cost;” “Who to hire next: FD or BD;” and so on.
When you define the question, it’s much easier to find the person who can help answer it.
How do you find a mentor?
You have two options: go to an organisation that can connect you to a mentor, or approach mentors yourself. (I’d recommend trying both!)
Here’s a tip from Mike Freeman, who runs the BITC scheme: “Your time is precious, so have a think about what support programme will add most value to you and your business at that point in time. Be as specific as you can on the type of support you need.”
How to approach someone directly
It’s natural that your first port of call for support would be friends, colleagues and contacts. But why not try approaching someone you admire from afar as well?
Be tactical in how you ask for their input. “I’d be cautious about how and when to use the ‘M-word’ – mentor,” says Oli Barrett MBE, co-founder of StartUp Britain and Cospa, and an Expert Impact mentor.
‘Mentoring’ can sound like an arduous, long-term commitment. Keep it easy-breezy. Oli suggests writing to say you’d be happy with a short meeting, wherever is convenient for them, or just advice over email. “I personalise my note as much as possible, focusing on something they have said or done. Because I’m writing to busy people, I’m not afraid to follow up if I’ve heard nothing.”
A little light stalking never goes astray, either. Go to panel events and approach the speakers afterwards, with your elevator pitch at the ready. You’ll be surprised at how friendly many super-successful entrepreneurs are. After all, they’ve been in your shoes.
Making it work
Got a meeting sorted? Great. Plan how to use the time wisely. Keep questions concise. Share your big-picture ambition. Remember, you need to make this enjoyable and exciting, so your mentor wants to stay involved.
Always follow up after the meeting. A thank you note goes without saying. After that, keep your mentor updated on how they helped you.
“It’s not a one-off meeting,” says Jenny Halpern Prince, founder of Halpern PR, who mentors with us at Expert Impact. “Keep in touch with ways you have taken their advice and how it has paid off. Everyone needs to hear feedback, as it creates a positive relationship.”
Remember to reconnect with them every month or so. Try to reciprocate your mentor’s goodwill. Oli suggests sharing an article they might like or inviting them to an event.
A final word to the wise. Your mentor might be one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the UK. But they’re a sounding-board, not the CEO.
Smart people have strong opinions. Your job is to select which suggestions you use. Get all the advice you need, then trust your instincts.
Kendra Walsh is Director of Expert Impact, a charity that matches social entrepreneurs with some of the UK’s most successful entrepreneurs for mentoring. She is a contributing speaker at SEWF 2018, exploring different ways social enterprises and entrepreneurs can upskill. She will be speaking at the workshop Teaching and Learning – upskilling social enterprises and entrepreneurs on Friday 14th at 2.15pm