Most entrepreneurs are too stubborn to seek a mentor for guidance: They have so much confidence in themselves and their ideas that they don’t see the need to ask anyone for advice. The best entrepreneurs, however, actually claim multiple mentors: Mark Zuckerberg relied on Steve Jobs at Apple and Washington Post chief executive Donald Graham, almost 40 years his senior.
Mentoring does not happen by accident, or require large stipends. Both parties have to be proactive in making the relationship work, and the communication and learning have to go both ways. The best mentors are confidants who have already "been there and done that," yet are looking forward to learning from someone whom they respect, and who often is from another generation or industry.
Select mentors to fill your strength gaps. If your strength is technology, perhaps you need a business mentor. Friends, family and subordinates are not good candidates. It’s plausible to have more than one, but not likely that you have the bandwidth for more than two. Mentors tell you what you need to hear, while friends tell you what you want to hear.
Look for street smarts rather than book smarts. Anyone with knowledge can help you, but real-world experience is usually the best teacher. Age is irrelevant, but, normally, experienced retired executives have more time and interest in helping new, aspiring entrepreneurs. Busy top current executives may be interested but not available.
Take your time to build a personal relationship. Good chemistry is a key to a productive mentor-mentee relationship. Initial mentor exchanges should be face-to-face, rather than by email, texting or phone only. Full communication is critical, including body language and context, to build the trust and credibility required for maximum value.
Look for someone with a legacy of business success. A renowned college professor or a brilliant psychologist may seem like a good prospective mentor, but these people can’t offer you the pragmatic advice and guidance you will need as an entrepreneur. Think about what you personally want to achieve in business, and look for someone who has already achieved it.
Find a mentor who is willing to learn as well as advise. The healthiest and most sustainable mentor-mentee relationships are ones where each party adds value to the other’s life. Both people need to be genuinely interested in the other, and willing to share elements of their private lives as well as their business strategies.
Look for someone who has personal characteristics you admire. If you are shy and introverted, for example, seek out someone who is an extrovert. Good mentoring is not limited to words and advice. Style and body language can be just as motivating and instructive. Observing habits that instill trust and credibility is a learning opportunity.
Develop and share your vision of what success means to you. Choose a mentor who can relate to your own, personal vision. Some entrepreneurs want to be financially independent and others want to change the world, while others see "success" as a balanced family life. The best mentor must understand that equation, and align his or her advice with your objectives.
In any case, don’t expect a mentor to make your decisions for you, or relieve you of the task of doing the proper research into issues and opportunities. Obviously, too, he or she should never be used as an excuse for a failure you've had; your mentor should never be the target of an emotional barrage because you've had a bad day. If you don’t take responsibility for your own actions, no mentor can or will help you.
The best way to choose and treat a mentor is to look ahead and put yourself into that role. Given the business success you expect to come from your experience as a mentee and businessperson, you yourself will likely be asked to be a mentor somewhere down the road.
So embrace your search for the right mentor. And, once you do select this confidant, choose someone who can prepare you to "pay it forward," just as he or she is paying it forward to you. That way, we all get a payback.