Friends tell you what you want to hear. Mentors tell you what you need to hear. When the message is the same from both, you don’t need the mentor anymore. In that sense, you should think of a mentor more like your advisor who has done all he can. You always need the friend.
Also don’t confuse a business mentor with a business coach. A mentor’s aim is to teach you what to do and how, in specific situations, unlike a coach who helps you develop your generic skills for deciding what to do and how. The mentor helps the entrepreneur fill an experience gap, and a coach helps fill a skill gap. Both may be required.
Before you are ready for a mentor, you must know yourself. Have you assessed your strengths and weaknesses? What are your goals? Where are you heading? Unless you know these things, no one can help you. Also you need to be prepared to take advice and criticism, if it is honest, helpful, and given in a friendly way.
Once you are ready, what are some of the attributes of a good mentor that you should look for? You need someone who:
- Applies pragmatics to your ideas. Most entrepreneurs have lots of ideas. Some can be put into practice easily, but others will be off-the-wall and need refinement to implement. A good mentor will have some knowledge and some perspective on almost every business subject, which compounds their effectiveness.
- Challenges your accountability. Entrepreneurs tend to be driven by the crisis of the moment. As such, it is easy to neglect the real priorities of growing the business. Sharing of your goals with your mentor means that if you don’t complete them, you have a credible voice to remind you and help get you back on the right track.
- Able to extrapolate the business. A successful business never stands still. You need a constant stream of ideas for scaling and expanding, with a realistic understanding of the costs and resources required. Then there is the exit strategy, which needs planning, connections, and forethought.
- Has the contacts you need. When you need contacts for investors, equipment, and legal or accounting advice, your mentor has the contacts and knows where to find the information. More importantly, the mentor tells you what you need to do to build and maintain your own list of contacts.
- Gives the outside view looking in. A mentor knows what to look for, and sees what your customers see. It’s natural to become so immersed in your business that you forget to step back and look in from the outside. Like living next to the railroad tracks; after a while you don’t hear the trains.
How do you find a person who meets these criteria? Sometimes a mentor just appears naturally, but do your networking among friends and colleagues. Look for a person who could be a good role model, someone who has the skills and personality that match your chemistry.
This person could be a professional who does this for a living, or a role model in a related business who is willing to help you. An ideal candidate is someone from the Boomer generation, who is semi-retired, but still active in local organizations or the investment community.
I don’t mean to imply that an entrepreneur needs a mentor more than a friend, just that friends are not normally positioned for double-duty as mentors. You need at least one of each, and the ability to tell the difference.