Someone to Watch Over Me

Forging a Relationship

Once you've identified a few candidates, the first critical meeting should involve nothing more than information-sharing so you can get to know each other and determine whether the chemistry is right. During that first meeting, be direct. "Be as specific as you can about what you'd like from this person," says Phillips-Jones. "Keep your request simple though--for example, 'I'm thinking of offering these things to the customer. I'd really like to know what you think.'"

But finding the right person is only the beginning. Before you begin working together, Phillips-Jones urges you to evaluate yourself as a prospective mentee. "It takes a specific attitude to get the most out of a mentoring relationship," she says. "You have to accept honest feedback and criticism."

Ideally, the relationship ought to be fluid, flexible and open. "Be ready to learn, and take direction and criticism," Adler says. "You must be comfortable enough with yourself and the other person to put your ego aside."

Play by the mentor's rules. Mentors are busy people, which means they're fitting you into their packed schedules. "If they want to meet with you at 6:30 a.m. for a breakfast meeting, it's up to you to be there on time," says White.

White estimates he gives 150 hours each year, or three hours per week, to mentoring start-up entrepreneurs. "Once I set a time, I expect the entrepreneur to be there," he says. "If the [mentee] balks or constantly tries to change the time, it tells me he or she isn't committed to the relationship."

How much time should you expect from your mentor? It could be as little as an hour each month or as much as an hour per week. And no matter what the time parameters are, there must be an agenda, including something to accomplish at each meeting. The more focused the relationship is, the better.

"Mentors often give entrepreneurs a task or project to complete in order to learn a critical business lesson," says White. "It's up to the mentee not to waste the mentor's time. When the relationship is working productively, both people are reaping benefits. The mentee is learning and improving his or her business, while the mentor is fine-tuning his or her training techniques."

Don't take advantage of the relationship, stresses Phillips-Jones. "From the onset, there should be a set time limit," she explains. "Typically, it's six months to a year, but it can be as little as three months if the mentor is extremely busy."

Finally, throughout the first critical two years of start-up, Donnellon urges entrepreneurs to build several mentor relationships. "It's a myth that one mentor will be able to meet all your needs," says Donnellon. Depending on the issues, one mentor might solve your financial problems, another might answer your distribution questions, and still another might coach you on finding technical solutions (networking your business, installing and mastering software to manage your inventory and so on). As your needs change, so will your mentor requirements.

And, who knows--in five years' time, some eager entrepreneur with a super idea might call you and ask you to be his or her mentor. Then you can take well-earned satisfaction knowing you not only profited from your mentor relationships, but that you also passed on some of that hard-earned knowledge to others.

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This article was originally published in the May 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Someone to Watch Over Me.

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