After a very successful five-year mentoring relationship with a SCORE adviser, I decided to step into mentoring entrepreneurs myself. Before I ventured into the other side, almost ten years ago, I asked my mentor a couple questions: "What worked best in our partnership? What didn't work well in our partnership? What could have made our partnership better?" We had built a lot of trust in that time, so I knew he would be honest. Here are a few things I learned from that conversation and from my own mentoring relationships.
Be open to change and criticism
Early in my mentorship, I understood that I knew very little about business and the world. My adviser was in his late 60s and had dozens of years of experience with both. It was a well balanced partnership because I was open to his recommendations.
I remember feeling really bad after the first session he redirected me. It felt very negative at the time because I wasn't expecting someone to contradict my thoughts and actions. At our next session, I asked about his criticism. His reasoning? At this point in our relationship, he felt that it was best to be direct in his communication. He knew that I trusted him and I knew that his criticism was accurate. It might have been a tough pill to swallow at the time, but in hindsight, it was the advice I needed from the person who was best suited to give it. Many mentors are extremely positive, even in their criticism, so it's important to recognize that any request of change is coming from a someone who wants the best for you. In my case, if I hadn't taken his direction, I would have spent a lot more time spinning my wheels.
Be ready to work - and get it done!
Just like in any meeting, a mentorship without action items is a waste of time. When working with a mentor, be expected to have tasks to do ahead of your next session. A great mentor will make sure that you understand what is to be done and the reason for it. A great mentee will make sure that they work to accomplish the task, or communicates with the mentor for more direction if they can't complete it. The job of the mentor is to help find the struggles and pain points in how you are working in order to move you forward. They are responsible for growing your knowledge in your industry or area of interest. Your job is to take the steps necessary to put that knowledge to work for your situation.
Over the past few years, I have worked with mentees that took their post-meeting work seriously, and others who didn't prioritize the items we identified. The ones that did the work and reached out when they struggled were leaps and bounds more successful than those who didn't get things done. Seems obvious, right? It is, but you'd be surprised how many people get into a mentorship and think that it's just talking, not doing.
Communication makes or breaks the partnership
It is important to understand that your mentee is mentoring because they have experience in the business world. Chances are, they are carving out time in their day, away from their job duties, to help you. The expectation they have is that you are open with communication and take the partnership seriously. I have rarely met a business owner or executive who has time to sit twiddling their thumbs when left waiting for a meeting or phone call. Being timely, responding promptly, and making sure that you understand the expectations of the mentorship is important so that neither party feels like their time is wasted. Communication is a key necessity in every business relationship, and your mentorship can be improved and successful, or unworth the time and effort based on how openly and regularly you communicate.
Unfortunately, I have had to end mentorships with people who couldn't commit to meeting regularly, who missed calls, or who didn't meet the expectations we laid out. It's always hard to end a mentorship because you know the mentee needs help, but it is best for everyone involved. If a mentor continues to work with someone who isn't open and communicative, they will soon resent giving their time to help others. Alternatively, a mentee who continually wastes the time of a mentor will have a breakdown in other areas of their business. Sometimes this failure is the only thing that pushes them to make the changes necessary.
When I started working with my mentor, I wasn't sure what to expect. My mentor was a stranger who I knew little about. I am fairly guarded with new people, but I knew in order to make my mentorship successful, I needed to be open and give trust before it was fully earned. I'm glad that I did, because it lead to a very worthwhile experience for me and my business.
Trust is the most important and most difficult aspect of building a mentor/mentee relationship. There are a lot of fears and uncertainties that come with anything new, but especially when you have to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is incredibly important in mentoring because it allows you to openly discuss the struggles you have. Mentors cannot work on areas they don't know are broken, and openness is the only way to uncover all of the aspects they can help with.
Trust can easily be broken as well, by not being truthful about the actual status of your company, your struggles, or the knowledge you have or don't have. At their heart, mentors are teachers. They specialize in a specific area of business and want to share their experiences and information in order to help others. When they feel like they aren't as effective or don't have their mentee's trust, it can be hard to help.
Know when it's not working out
Sometimes, even with the best communication and trust, you realize that the partnership is not working out. It could be a lack of understanding, being unable to relate to each other, outgrowing their expertise, or needing different experience altogether. This is not always the easiest decision, but when it's not working out, then it's time to end the partnership.
I always feel guilty when I have to end a partnership, except when they outgrow me and my knowledge. My goal - and I make this clear from Day 1 - is for them to outgrow me. When there's still more I can do, but the timing is wrong or I'm not being effective, I end the partnership, even when I want to make it work. As a mentor, it is hard to feel like you're letting someone down. As a mentee, it is hard to feel like you failed. Instead, it's important for both parties to understand that the only chance of working with someone who is a better fit is to stop the partnership and find that other individual.
Mentoring can be so rewarding for both the mentor and mentee, but without openness, a willingness to work, good communication, trust, and an understanding of when the partnership should end, it will not work. I recommend that everyone both have and be a mentor. It takes time to find the right person for both, but when you do, you will grow as a leader and a person almost immediately.