When 33-year-old image consultant Michelle Damiano decided she needed a mentor, she employed that finely honed skill that many women learn at their mother's knee: shopping.
Put your car keys away, everybody. There's no Mentors "R" Us store stocked with a selection of experienced professionals. But Damiano adopted the same methodical approach to finding a mentor that she would use to buy a car. Since image consultants aren't in great supply in rural State College, Pennsylvania, where her business, Impressions, is located, Damiano got a New York City phonebook and combed the listings for image consultants in the Big Apple. After cold-calling several and landing in-person interviews with a few, she found a match, and before she knew it, she was learning the ropes by volunteering at her new mentor's business.
Although the whole arrangement sounds a bit calculated, Damiano considers the guidance she received through her mentoring relationship invaluable-the kind of experience she probably couldn't have had in State College. In the past three years, her sales have grown from $20,000 to $100,000 a year.
Mentoring expert Florence Stone, author of Coaching, Counseling & Mentoring: How to Choose and Use the Right Technique to Boost Employee Performance (AMACOM), says this relationship worked because Damiano knew what she needed and created a plan to find it. Plus, the mentor got something from the relationship: free labor. "Ideally, the relationship should be a quid pro quo," says Stone, director of membership and programs at the American Man-agement Association in New York City. "Both sides should get something out of it."
Not everyone needs a mentor to succeed in business, but it can't hurt, especially if there are key areas where your knowledge is skimpy, like perhaps technology or marketing. That's where a mentor comes in handy. And if one mentor is good, well, sometimes more is even better. If you can't find one person to fulfill the mentor role, says Stone, look for "multiple mentors," different people you can turn to for advice in areas where you need development. You might have one mentor to provide guidance about financial decisions, another one who can discuss marketing.
Like Damiano, you can "shop" for a mentor by networking at trade shows or professional gatherings. You can also make contacts by listening to the grapevine-an experienced professional whom others describe as friendly and helpful may make an excellent mentor. Once you've selected a potential mentor, take these steps:
- Approach the mentor and talk about how he or she became successful.
- Suggest further discussions, and make an ap-pointment. At the meeting, express your business needs and questions, and write down the answers. Later, evaluate the answers to see if they really were valuable.
- Conclude by saying "You've been very helpful. Can I contact you when I need advice?" Avoid asking someone directly to be your mentor; if the relationship is mutually beneficial, it will naturally evolve into a mentoring relationship.
You'll find your mentoring relationship will reach a natural conclusion when you've learned all you can or when the mentor can no longer spend time with you. At that point, try to subtly solicit the names of other entrepreneurs-in effect starting the shopping process all over again. If you follow up with those recommendations, Stone says, be sure to thank your original mentor for the info.
And when all is said and done, think about being a mentor to a younger colleague. You don't have to be middle-aged to offer good advice. "Being a mentor is not an age thing," says Stone. "It's an attitude."