3 Warning Signs Your Mentor Is Not Helping You
The entrepreneurial journey is tough and going it alone makes it even tougher. Experienced founders will tell you that having great mentors can make the difference between becoming a bright star or ending up a flaming disaster. But, not all mentors are as helpful as they should be. Some mentors give irrelevant or lousy advice. Others might have a less-than-stellar reputation among industry pros who have been around for a couple of decades -- repelling potential investors or partners from your startup. And then there are always the deadbeat mentors who only show up when they need something.
Related: How to Ask Someone to Be Your Mentor
So, how can you tell if someone might be a great mentor for you? And what should you expect from a great mentor? Here are three tips to help you find a mentor who will meet your needs, always have your back, and push you to do better than you imagined you could.
What great mentors do and don't
Each entrepreneur is unique and needs different types of support, advice, networks and guidance. A mentor who understands your startup's unique market challenges and opportunities is as important as a mentor who gets your shortcomings as a leader and founder. We all have blind spots and we all need to be pushed on occasion. Great mentors give you what you ask for and, hopefully, what you need but didn't ask for, but sometimes they miss the mark. Here are three red flags your mentor is not helping you:
1. If your mentor doesn't challenge you to tackle your weaknesses and overcome your fears, your mentor is satisfied with the status quo -- which isn't good enough for you! Building a company requires doing the stuff we love and the stuff we wish we could hire someone else to do. If your mentor is worth her salt, she will push you to grow into your weaknesses and throttle past the challenges that scare you.
Takeaway: I've often heard mentors working with startups in our accelerator respond to questions with questions. Mentors don't have to have all of the answers -- but they do need to know how to ask the right questions. This requires a mentor to slow down, listen and focus on you and your startup.
2. Avoid mentors who seem to give the same advice or ask the same "insightful" question of every entrepreneur they meet. Instead, look for a mentor who actively listens to you as you describe your situation or predicament. Are they asking questions that help them understand the situation more before giving you glib advice? Are they offering to bring a resource that would help you in this particular situation -- or just giving you platitudes? You know you have a solid mentor when they give you advice that is specific, timely and likely effective for you.
Takeaway: Mentors worth your time give you their time.
3. If a mentor isn't calling you back, doesn't show up for meetings or cancels with little notice, this mentor is not using your time well. And your time as a founder is valuable. One way to determine if your mentor is going to give you a reasonable amount of time is to set expectations when you are first exploring the idea of working together. A reasonable amount of time to you might seem like a lot of time to a busy, successful CEO or investor. I suggest meeting by phone for 45 minutes every other month and in person in the off months. However, I always remind mentors that if a startup they are helping hits a wall they might need to jump in and help get things back on track.
Takeaway: Don't be shy about checking in on the process with your mentor. Ask them if they are satisfied with the time and energy they are putting into your success. Take note if your mentor says they have a crazy month next month and offer to reschedule if that helps.
Are you my mentor?
Now that you have some ideas about how to spot a solid mentor, how do you go about finding a mentor? It's cliché but true: You've got to get out there! Start networking and get used to introducing yourself to business leaders who may seem "out of your league" due to their success as an entrepreneur. Test out a potential mentor by asking for his or her advice on a challenge you are tackling. At a local networking event for entrepreneurs, a friend of mine introduced herself to the former head of operations for Quaker Oats and in the same sentence asked for his suggestion on inventory and logistics software. She applied his advice diligently, followed up with him, and two months later he joined her board of directors.
In addition to networking events you can consider joining an accelerator or incubator. Many programs have a broad network of mentors who are already excited to "give back" to entrepreneurs by sharing their expertise. Do your homework before you join a program and talk to alumni to ensure the mentors are truly available and engaged with participating startups. Ask if the mentors are matched with a specific startup or if all the mentors are available to you. And find out if the mentors receive any sort of training or oversight from the program.
Give it time.
Like all relationships, it takes time to cultivate a meaningful relationship with a mentor. Once you find someone who has agreed to mentor you, your next step is to prove to your mentor that you are worth their time, energy and network connections. (And, vice versa!) Your new mentor might suggest a few minor tasks or ideas to see if you make use of his advice and time. Follow through diligently! You, as well, should be testing out how reliable and trustworthy your mentor is.
After a few months, as you both gain confidence in one another and your trust grows, your mentor should start making introductions to grow your network, build access to market channels and create connections to potential clients, partners, employees and possibly investors. But, it won't happen overnight. And it won't happen at all if you pick a mentor who isn't as invested in your success as you deserve.