March 1, 2013

What do business mentors want?

BY Shirley Robinson IN Small Business 0 Comment

Much like with children, there’s no owner’s manual for businesses.  There are always multiple ways to approach business development (within legal limits, of course!), which can make deciding how to guide and plan at a high level challenging.  Sometimes, for example, it’s hard to know how to weigh risk in a given industry, or what the realistic advantages and disadvantages of different  funding schemes are.

Even when the business owner is savvy and experienced, she is going to be spending a LOT of time and emotional energy tending to the business and thinking about the business and living in the business.  This is necessary, of course, but it also creates a certain loss of perspective.  A seasoned advisor who’s able to step back a bit, someone who has been down that path and knows some of the pitfalls, is something any sensible entrepreneur would want, at least at some point.  We’re talking, of course, about business mentors.

Aside from these qualitative observations, there are some hard numbers to support the wisdom of gaining a mentor–small businesses whose leaders were mentored were more than twice as likely to survive for five years as those that weren’t (  So it’s obvious why a small business owner would want a mentor.  The question that remains, though, is…what’s in it for the mentors?  What do mentors want?

Dr. Freud says youre overanalyzing it
Dr. Freud says you're overanalyzing it

If you ask mentors why they participate in the sometimes time-consuming activities of mentorship relationships, most will express a desire to give back, to impart some of that “if I’d known then what I know now” knowledge to young entrepreneurs.  We can’t forget that being helpful is something that people enjoy.  It’s rewarding to take your own life experiences and use them to improve things for someone else.  Plus it’s an ego boost to see your own experiences validated by a smart, enterprising person who cares about a lot of the same things you do.

Most mentees want mentors who have been successful in the same or a very similar industry, but every business is unique.  The business climate is also always changing in interesting ways.  Being a mentor allows an entrepreneur (by nature, a curious person who likes to understand things by doing them) to learn about something new, and gain fresh perspectives on the business world.

Some mentors are also gaining financially from the relationship–rewarded with equity, board membership, or even a consulting fee.  Not every small business owner can afford to reimburse a mentor financially, and even those who can will have to confront ROI calculations.  This can be good or bad, depending on how you conceive of the relationship.  Board membership can be a good idea because it gives the mentor a more direct incentive to promote the long-term health of the organization.  However, it also gives the mentor some real power, and even entrepreneurs who are most eager for mentorship ultimately want to captain their own ship.

So what’s a business owner to do?  The first step is of course to figure out what you want from a mentor.  But then it’s important to think about what you can offer to a mentor–mentorship is a partnership, not a charity.  The more attractive an experience you provide, the more likely you are to get what you’re looking for.  What makes your business interesting to work with?  What are your growth prospects?  Are you a good listener and a quick learner?  These are all important considerations.

What have your experiences been with mentorship?  We’re really curious to hear how it went!

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