The savvy business owner understands there is always room for improvement. At some point, it can be very beneficial for both you and your business to seek out a mentor—someone with more experience and know-how than you possess. Entrepreneurs just starting out have even more reason to enlist a mentor’s services, in order to get a feel for the industry and to learn from someone who’s “been there and done that.”
Before beginning your search, ask yourself what you’re looking for. Do you want to work with an individual to hone specific business skills or someone with broader experience within your industry? Is a structured one-on-one session the best way for you to learn or do you prefer more informal get-togethers? Are you prepared to commit the time to being mentored and are you willing to be held accountable for actions you promise to take?
Your answers may depend upon the person you find (and who agrees to serve as your mentor), but it’s best to start the process having a pretty good idea about what you need.
Look into your network.
Chances are there’s a man or woman in your professional network who you consider as sharp as they come. This may be a person you’ve worked with in the past, perhaps as an employee, or someone recommended by a trusted colleague.
Search for a mentor through LinkedIn.
A great potential mentor may already be connected to you through your LinkedIn network. If not, do a search using keywords relating to your field or an Advanced People Search, then narrow your choices to a city or zip code close by, so you can approach and connect in person. You can also joined a LinkedIn business group or check out who’s participating in LinkedIn forums related to your field.
Check out conferences and trade associations.
People often locate mentors through trade association mentor-protégé programs. Some of these programs operate on a one-to-one basis, while others involve group discussions led by a knowledgeable mentor. (A group setting offers the advantage of someone else asking a question you never thought of.) You can find potential mentors leading panel discussions at trade shows and conferences as well. And look at contributors to trade publications who might be open to a mentoring experience.
Investigate government-sponsored mentor organizations.
Among the various government-sponsored business assistance programs, SCORE is probably the best known and most extensive. A Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, SCORE offers free, confidential advice to both start-ups and existing businesses. Through their “Find an Email Mentor” service, you can connect with experts in an array of specialties, ranging from finance and operations to strategy, marketing and sales. SCORE has a network of 13,000 members in 348 chapters nationwide.
With so many avenues to choose from, you’re likely to find several ideal mentoring candidates. Before making contact, do some homework up-front, learning as much as possible about the person’s background and expertise. When the time comes to approach this individual, do so in an informal way. For example, if you meet a potential candidate at a trade show, exchange business cards and follow-up a week later with an email invitation to coffee.
Generally speaking, people will shy away from a direct “Will you be my mentor?” request. Start by soliciting their advice on a specific issue or challenge. Be friendly, even excited about the opportunity to work together. Let the mentor see how dedicated you are to your enterprise and how he or she might benefit as well. At its best, mentoring is a two-way street. You may have knowledge or experience that they can learn from.