Your relationship won’t work unless you do.
Working with a mentor might be one of the best decisions you ever make as an entrepreneur.
Having an experienced mentor on your side significantly increases your company’s odds of survival. It also can provide you with expertise that could allow your small business to achieve new levels of growth.
But … mentors aren’t magic. (Obi-Wan Kenobi and Gandalf the Grey being the obvious exceptions.)
Your interactions with your mentor are like your relationships with any other human being. They can be immensely rewarding, if you put in the work and do the right things.
So what are those “right things”? Thinking Bigger Business asked a team of mentors with the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program. The Kansas City-based nonprofit is celebrating 20 years of pairing local business owners with some of the city’s most skilled executives.
Here is their advice for getting the most from your mentor.
Be Someone Who Can Be Mentored
You are ultimately responsible for your company’s fate. But if you’re working with a mentor, you need to be open to what that person is telling you—even if it’s something you don’t want to hear.
“I think you have to be willing to take criticism and take advice,” said HEMP mentor Grant Burcham, the president and CEO of Missouri Bank. “You have to be willing to admit that you don’t have all the answers.”
That can be tough for some business owners, who are used to being the voice of authority in their companies.
“People think they should have all the answers because they’re the CEO or the president of the company,” said mentor Thomas Cameron, CEO at Project Group 2000. “Guess what? You don’t.”
Be Honest—and Don’t Ignore the Tiger
Mentees also have to be up front about their problems, said Lirel Holt, the founder of CARSTAR and one of the original HEMP mentors. Otherwise, their mentors can’t help them find solutions.
A good mentor can also force you to confront critical issues you’ve been (deliberately or subconsciously) avoiding. Holt uses the analogy of mice and tigers.
Too often, business owners would rather distract themselves by fighting an army of small, manageable problems—mice—while ignoring the tiger, a single large problem that could destroy the company if left unaddressed.
“He’s tackling the ones he knows how to handle,” Holt said. “But the tiger is over in the corner.”
The good news? With help, it can be very liberating to tackle your biggest worries head-on, Holt said. The fear can “melt away like Velvetta on a griddle.”
Be Ready to Talk Money
Hiring, time management, marketing, strategy—name a business problem, and HEMP’s mentors have seen and solved it. The most common trouble spot, though, is finances. Entrepreneurs need accurate financial reports, and they must know how to interpret those numbers.
The good news is this is a learnable skill.
“When all is said and done, it’s not rocket science,” said leadership consultant Deborah Young, another longtime HEMP mentor.
She said there are three basic questions that a business owner should be able to answer when looking at his or her company’s financial statements:
– What does it say? “We made $10,000 this month.”
– What does that mean?“We’re underperforming. Sales are 20 percent lower than last month.”
– What should I do about it? “We need to rethink our product lineup.”
Understanding your numbers will help you diagnose what’s ailing your company and help you find an antidote.
“Looking at the numbers,” she said, “will tell the story when nothing else will.”
Know When to Change Partners
HEMP has an extremely high success rate when it comes to matching mentors and mentees. But in rare cases, a pairing isn’t right, and the mentee can ask for a different partner. It’s nobody’s fault. Things just didn’t work out.
If you and your mentor aren’t on the same page, you may need to politely part ways, too.
Even with an experienced mentor, there could be times when you have a problem that’s beyond that person’s skill set.
In that case, your mentor can often connect you with someone in his or her professional network with the right skills and knowledge. That’s how HEMP does it. Mentees are encouraged to reach out to other mentors, past participants and other experts in its network.
“Small business owners often feel alone,” Burcham said, “and this is their way to have people they can lean on and bounce ideas off of. It opens the world of business owners to them, and I think that’s an exceptional value.”
Show Up and Be Ready to Work
Working with a mentor shouldn’t be a passive exercise. While they may have advice and stories to share, the best mentors will ask questions that force mentees to reflect on their situation and challenge them to come up with their own solutions.
“The mentor doesn’t tell the person what to do,” Holt said.
Rather, they’ll show you how to think about your problems.
“It’s a lot of work,” Young said, “if you’re doing it right.”