When I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, one of the areas that most stuck out for me was her discussion around mentoring. She talks in detail how important mentoring is and how challenging it is for many women to find mentors. Interestingly, one of the things that she is most criticised for in her book is how elitist she is because she had a mentor who was also the head of one of the colleges at Harvard when she attended, but clearly she has mastered the art of finding great mentors (yet another reason to read this book!).
So here’s the bad news… true (and free) mentorship usually comes out of an existing relationship. It’s very difficult for someone to decide to mentor you if they don’t know you or see potential in you.
After I started out on my journey as a micro-entrepreneur, I was very lucky to have the support of my old MD. He became a mentor, sponsor, advocate and supporter and I will always be grateful for his advice and help during what was a challenging time. Today I get mentoring and advice from lots of people around me, some of it is paid for and some of it is free. But regardless of whether I have paid for it not, I really value all of it.
I think finding decent mentors is incredibly important when you are running a business, because they give you fresh insight and ideas, support during challenging times and hopefully a helicopter view around your business.
But what do you do if you don’t have people in your life that fit the bill?
What is a mentor?
Firstly let’s look at what mentoring is. In simple terms, a mentor is an advisor. Someone who can discuss your business with you and who will use their resources, contacts and ideas to help you grow. A mentor is not a coach. They are not there to make you feel better about yourself or take you through a process where you become enlightened about an internal problem. For me, they tend to be more strategic, bringing their experience to bear and giving advice and support to help me move forward in my business.
Stop looking for a rescuer
While traditional mentoring is important, it is not the only answer. There are lots of ways that you can get support and ideas in your business.
Peer group mentoring. I’m a big fan of peer group mentoring as this can often give you what you are looking for quickly and easily. Peer group mentoring is where you connect with other people who support you and your business, are willing to listen and offer advice and help where they can.
This is the principle that we have built our Business Clubs around. When you start a business you don’t start as a brand new person, all your history and experience come into play. We offer the Business Clubs to give people the opportunity to share that experience and support others. I’ve been amazed at the calibre of women that come along and know that I have personally benefited from their advice and perspectives.
One to one mentoring. This is a more formal relationship where you arrange a regular time to meet and discuss your business challenges with someone you respect and whose advice can help move you forward. It doesn’t have to be face to face, in fact I usually do it via Skype. This type of mentoring is an ongoing relationship, and it is worth thinking about formal goals and outcomes otherwise it runs the risk of becoming a ‘nice chat’.
Paid for mentoring. I use this a lot. I have worked with Kerrie Dorman at the UK’s Affordable Mentors and found the process invaluable. This is even more formal than one to one mentoring, because as you can imagine, if you’re paying for something you tend to take it even more seriously. I’m a fan of this kind of mentoring as long as you know what you are looking for; otherwise it can become a big waste of money and a frustrating experience.
Now, I find that I will also ‘buy the time’ of people who I have met or whose advice I seek when a specific issue comes up. I may purchase an hour of time from a personal branding specialist or more recently I got in contact with an advisor that I worked with as part of the British Library’s Growth Programme, for some additional support over a business strategy that I’m currently developing. I like the simplicity and clarity of this type of exchange and it also means that I’m respecting the value of the time of the people that I work with.
Finding a mentor
There are some organisations that offer free mentor match-making services and there are organisations that you can contact to pay for mentoring. If you want to find a mentor without paying, you may find yourself on a longer journey – particularly if you are looking for a formal mentoring relationship.
Mentoring of this type will usually start with a relationship and often will be triggered by the mentor rather than the mentee. The mentor will see something in you that they want to support and will reach out with their advice. You can ask someone to be your mentor, but be quite careful about this, particularly if you don’t know the person you are asking very well, as it can be awkward and put the other person on the spot, which may make them feel uncomfortable.
You must build a relationship first, so that they are inspired to help you. Also, this type of mentoring will often be ad-hoc. Advice given over a coffee or during a meeting. They may offer to support you or introduce you to someone out of their own generosity rather than personal gain. What’s in it for the mentor? I think the pleasure of knowing that we have supported someone else in their journey. Personal impact is one of life’s great motivators, and this is an easy way to give it.
You may find that you are being mentored already but just don’t realise it! Many mentors won’t call themselves mentors, but that doesn’t stop them from being one.
What to look for in a mentor
This is my checklist, but you will have your own criteria and different mentors will serve you in different ways.
Experienced: I like to work with people who have been there before in some way, so they can advise on the best way forward
Character: They need to be someone that I trust and is ethical in what they do
Connected: Have relevant contacts and connections (though you can’t assume that these will be made accessible to you)
Honest: I want them to tell it like it is – no dancing around the issues
Interested in my success: I want them to want me to be successful and feel like they want to be a part of that
No ego attached to advice: A mentor is an advisor, you don’t have to take their advice and I want a mentor that is happy to advise me, but recognise that this is my journey and I may not choose to act on it.
Formal Mentoring Organisations
These are some UK mentoring organsiations, please feel free to share others in the UK and abroad in the comments below (I will update the list here too)
UK’s Affordable Mentors