"Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach" Aristotle
If you’re a manager (and if you’re reading this, you probably are), you must have heard about mentorship programs for executives. But you already have your advisory board and a business consultant, so why bother with a mentor? Too many cooks spoil the broth, right? Wrong. Much like a sommelier at a high-end restaurant, a mentor is there to advise you on the best course of action, the best proverbial wine to accompany the meal that is your business offering. But wait, you’d say, isn’t that what my consultant does?
For the past eight years I’ve been wearing both hats. My “official” role is a business consultant for companies of varying sizes. But that’s not all I do. When I’m off the clock, I volunteer as a professional business mentor at the Israel Export Institute (IEI) and the private sector. My mentees are C-level managers of startups and well established companies across different markets, including risk assessments, HLS, cyber, agriculture, education, IoT and more.
I’ve been in your shoes before. Alone at the top, you’ve probably wished (more than once) to have someone with whom to share the struggle of decision-making; someone to brainstorm with, share my thoughts. An experienced someone with a proven track of record, someone who knows not only success, but failure. Someone who listens and isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. Someone you can trust.
Management is a tough job, and one of the toughest parts is recognizing your shortcomings. Where do you stumble the most? Is it strategy, financing, sales? Maybe HR, communication or teamwork? Once you’ve acknowledged your weaknesses, you’ve made the first step toward overcoming them. Now, you need a mentor to guide you.
A mentor is not a consultant
The two terms are often mistakenly interchanged, and there’s sense to that. Both consultants and mentors advise on business processes. There are, however, some fundamental differences.
The relationship between a manager and their consultant is a business relationship. A mentor/mentee relationship, while also focused around business, is based on trust rather than a commercial agreement. Both parties must form a bond that hinges on understanding, progress and transformation. Do not try to test the boundaries of this relationship and attempt to take advantage of the opportunity. Abusing the trust can easily sever the mentorship bond. An experienced mentor should warn their mentee is a question crosses the mentorship boundaries to the consulting arena.
OK, I’m in. How do I get a mentor?
Nothing beats word of mouth. Call up a close friend and other managers in your network for the most honest and trustworthy recommendations. You can (and should) also scout the social networks, contact startup accelerators and venture capitals, find government institutions that work with mentors. Ask, and ye shall receive.
How do I know that I’ve chosen the right mentor?
Well, how do you know that you’ve hired the right employee? Make sure your expectations align; meet and see if there's chemistry. Lay it all out on the table – what are you looking for? What do you need help with? Do they seem like someone you can communicate freely with, someone you can learn from? And what about their expertise?
Many C-level managers tend to choose a mentor with experience in fields that are similar to theirs. Is that the right decision? It depends. I believe that selecting a business mentor not from your company's area of activities is an advantage. Having someone offer a different perspective on things can be a breath of fresh air. A mentor form a different field can provide exactly the kind of out-of-the-box thinking your company needs. So that’s my first tip – consider a mentor who is unprejudiced and not bound to your previous point of view.
Congratulations, you’ve found a potential mentor. Now what?
Expectations, expectations, expectations. Your first meeting should be all about defining what you’re looking to gain from the mentor/mentee relationship, and setting the boundaries and scope of the mentorship. Set up a fixed time, duration, and how often meetings take place. Decide on who composes the agenda, meeting summaries, follow-ups… Agree on the duration of the mentorship and set periodic feedback sessions. Make sure everything is upfront and no details are left “for later”. Just like you would in any professional relationship. Remember, they’re there for you – not the other way around. Commit to the process.
What’s in it for them?
That last sentence, about them being there for you and not the other way around? Only half true. Mentors have a lot to gain from the mentoring process. Aside from giving back to their community, they also get to hone valuable teaching skills, and open up to new perspectives and ideas. But after all is said and done – you’re still the greatest beneficiary. Respect your mentor and the process.
COVID-19 taught us a valuable lesson on the importance of reciprocity and solidarity. We’ve learned to team up and rely on our peers. A business mentor embodies this sentiment: they want to give back to their community. They want to contribute from their knowledge and experience. And they expect nothing in return. With so many businesses facing uncertainty, now is the perfect time let someone into your business mindset and help you reexamine things. There’s so much to gain.
"Much to learn you still have." - Master Yoda