What to consider when looking for a Business Mentor
Many business owners and entrepreneurs have benefited from having a mentor at different stages of their journey.
Gaining an independent and objective perspective when making key decisions can be extremely valuable.
We’ve written a brief guide on what to consider when looking for and selecting a business mentor.
So, let’s start with our definition of business mentoring.
What is a business mentor?
Before we get into the question of what to consider when looking for a business mentor, let’s first establish what a business mentor is.
In the context here, a business mentor is someone who works with business owners and leaders on a range of business issues.
That’s intentionally a very broad definition.
The distinction we would make about a business mentor is that mentoring is focused on both the person and the business.
Again, that’s just our definition.
What to consider when looking for a business mentor
We believe that there are 4 key areas to consider when looking to work with a business mentor.
This holds true regardless of whether it’s an informal relationship, a mentor who’s assigned to you, or someone you’ve hired yourself to work with.
These 4 areas are:
- Mentoring style
- Scope of engagement
Let’s look at them in more detail
This may seem the most obvious thing to consider, but it can often be overlooked due the broad definition of a business mentor.
To determine what experience you are looking for in a business mentor, it’s important to define the challenges and business issues that you are dealing with.
Are you an early-stage founder looking to raise investment? Are you an established business owner with an eye on succession-planning and exit?
What’s missing in your own personal competences and experiences where a business mentor may add the most value?
For example, if you are a founder without a formal sales or business development background (such as a technology or domain knowledge experts, such as a consultant) then a mentor with strong commercial acumen would be a good fit.
Or if you are looking for a business mentor who can support you with preparing your business for sale. In this case you’d want to find someone who’s been through that process (ideally more than once).
Sector experience is another interesting consideration, we often people over-estimate it’s importance.
In our experience, the majority of business issues cut across all sectors (e.g. strategy development, hiring talent, etc).
Indeed, a business mentor who was worked across a diverse range of sectors can provide a fresh perspective on the challenges you are facing.
However, in some circumstances, having a business mentor from your specific sector may be the right choice; particularly in very specialised industries.
In short, always think about the relevance of the mentor’s experience to the challenges you are facing.
2) Mentoring style
Quite often people throw around terms such as “coaching” and “mentoring” as if they are the same.
To some they are inter-changeable labels; to others its heretical to even mention them in the same sentence.
We think it’s more useful to ignore the labels and think about the style of mentoring.
Here’s a useful diagram below to describe this.
Some business mentors adopt a more “questioning” approach, while others are more “advising”.
Similarly, an approach can be more “process-driven” or it can be more “unstructured”, allowing the flow of conversation to be driven by the mentee.
Using this model, a “coaching” style of mentoring would be in the top left of the diagram, whereas a less formal mentoring relationship (perhaps peer-mentoring with someone who’s had no specific mentoring training) would be in the bottom right quadrant.
Neither is right or wrong necessarily.
For example, let’s say that you want a business mentor who can help you understand a specific challenge (such as handling a disciplinary matter or choosing an e-commerce platform for your startup).
You may just want to “pick their brains” and quickly get to an understanding.
Working with a mentor who is more advisory and unstructured in style may be perfect for this specific issue.
Alternatively, if you want to develop yourself and are also dealing with more complex and less clear-cut business issues, then working with someone who is on the left-hand side of the diagram would be a better choice.
As a rule of thumb, the left-side suits a longer-term business mentoring relationship, covering a broader range of business issues, whereas the right-side works better on more precise and shorter-term challenges.
This is the most subjective consideration when looking for a business mentor, and one that only you will really know whether it’s right, or not.
However, unlike when you are looking to buy a house and you get that “I just know” feeling whether it’s right or not, this is different.
You might actually want a business mentor who makes you a little bit uncomfortable.
Perhaps you need someone who will challenge your thinking?
We’ve had feedback from clients who prefer a mentor who will “hold their feet to the fire” and keep them accountable.
Equally, sometimes a client needs a mentor who is very easy to speak with and open, which can help them deal with more personal challenges.
The point is that it’s subjective and the only way to know is to meet with a potential business mentor, and ideally have one or two discovery sessions first before you commit to working together.
Any professional business mentor would be happy to do this.
4) Scope of engagement
This final consideration is about the type of relationship that you have with your business mentor.
There needs to be a clear alignment between the business mentor and mentee.
Things to consider are the frequency of sessions and how these sessions are delivered.
Will they always be face-to-face or via video call? Or a mix of both?
How often will you work together? Will it always be within business hours, or more flexible (for an international mentoring assignment this is even more relevant to agree).
It’s important to establish this up-front as, for both parties, having a session either very early or late in the day can be sub-optimal in terms of energy levels, concentration, etc.
Will your business mentor be available “on demand” if an important issue comes up? Or is the relationship confined to agreed sessions.
These are all parameters that you should explore with your business mentor.
We have a rule to only work with clients during business hours and not at weekends.
We do this because we think that every business owner needs to make time to work on their business.
You wouldn’t expect a board meeting to take place on a weekend, would you? Isn’t a mentoring session just important for the success of your business.
Another important part of agreeing the scope of a business mentoring engagement is how long you will be working together?
When you are dealing with ongoing business issues and challenges, this can be quite open-ended.
However, it’s critical to have a period in which you jointly review the relationship and then decide on whether it’s still adding value to you and your business.
Mentor dependency is something that any professional business mentor will be aware of and, ethically, needs to be avoided.
That’s not to say that a mentoring relationship cannot be enduring over many years, but it should be consciously reviewed periodically.
We never take on a business mentoring client for anything longer than 12 months without a clear point to mutually review and honestly evaluate the relationship.
Anyone arguing against this point probably doesn’t have your best interests at heart.
So, to summarise, if you are considering working with a business mentor, whether that’s a professional or informal relationship, considering these 4 things will help you think through what’s best for you:
- Experience – is it relevant to what you need at this time?
- Mentoring style – do you want to solve a clear, single issue or need wider support?
- Chemistry – do you want someone who’s a challenger or an open sounding-board?
- Scope of engagement – how will you both work together and for how long?
And always start with one or two discovery sessions to determine whether there’s a real fit before making a longer-term commitment.
That’s important for both you and your mentor, as getting the relationship right goes both ways.