When Phil Morabito needed advice on how to grow his Houston-based public relations firm, he did something a little unusual: he consulted the "bug guy."
"Bill Spitz owned the largest pest control company in the state of Texas before he sold it to Waste Management Inc.," says Morabito, CEO of Pierpont Communications. "I met him through the Silver Fox Advisors, a group of retired executives who offer mentorship. He was a real successful guy and I was a small business owner who needed guidance."
Morabito says at first he wasn’t sure the relationship would be a fit. "I thought, what is a guy who solves cockroach problems going to know about what I do?" he recalls "But it’s all about customer service -- no matter what industry you’re in – and I needed to do a better job of that."
Spitz met with Morabito each Wednesday for five years, and Morabito says the relationship resulted in his company experiencing rapid growth and success. Today, Pierpont Communications is one of the largest PR firms in the Southwest.
"I strongly believe every entrepreneur needs a mentor, but it has to be the right fit," says Morabito. "Bill gave me great advice, I still call him today when I need help."
Dr. Sharon Straus, division director of geriatric medicine at the University of Toronto, says having a personal connection, like the one Morabito and Spitz shared, is necessary for a successful mentoring relationship. She recently studied mentors and mentees at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine and the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine.
"The personal connection is what we often describe as having 'chemistry,'" she says. "Participants [in the study] stated that if they didn't feel this connection, they weren't comfortable discussing things with their mentor -- and this is crucial to the success of the relationship."
In addition to having a personal connection, Straus identified four other key ingredients small business owners should look for when seeking a mentor:
1. Clear Expectations. The initial meeting should include a discussion of goals and responsibilities, says Straus, including things such as time commitments, accountability and intellectual property.
"Bill always made me identify and address my goals," says Morabito. "He would give me homework assignments and I was always sure I had the answers."
2. Mutual Respect. Straus says mentors and mentees need to respect each other's time, effort and qualifications.
"For example, if the mentee doesn't respect the mentor's time or advice, the mentor may disengage," she says. "Good mentors were said to be honest, trustworthy and active listeners."
Morabito says Spitz’s respectful approach helped him glean more from the relationship: "He’s not ‘in your face.’ It was refreshing to get advice from somebody who wasn’t trying to lecture. He’s subtle in a purposeful way and I admire that."
3. Reciprocity. Straus says mentoring should be bi-directional and include strategies that make the relationship mutually rewarding. Morabito says at times he offered Spitz marketing advice for his consulting business.
4. Shared Values. Straus says mentors and mentees should share interests and values, which will establish a common ground. Morabito agrees, and says Spitz has a lot of qualities he admires and aspires to emulate.
"Bill is a family man and a community person," he says. "I am the father of four, I’m on 10 local boards and I do a lot for charities. I’ve always wanted to be like Bill -- I still do -- I respect and admire him."