|Every January since 2002 has been designated National Mentoring Month, a time to focus attention on the importance of mentors to Americans of all ages and in all stages of their lives. As a small business owner, choosing and working with the right mentor is one of the most important steps you can take to help ensure that your operation is running as effectively and efficiently as possible.
In a small business mentoring relationship, an experienced individual (the mentor) shares their entrepreneurial know-how with a less-experienced individual (the mentee or protégé), offering them free advice, support and feedback to help them build and manage their business. Ideally, the arrangement develops into a long-term relationship based on ongoing dialog, mutual respect and learning that ultimately leads to the mentee “paying it forward” by becoming a mentor to the next generation of business owners.
Finding a mentor can be a challenge, but one that’s worth the effort. Luckily, you have many options. At Merchant Express, we recommend some places to start looking:
- Your existing professional network, including current and former work colleagues as well as friends and family who run their own successful businesses. Once you’ve identified a likely candidate, ask them if they would be willing to mentor you. Be specific about why you admire them and the type of input you are seeking from them.
- Trade and professional associations often sponsor their own mentoring programs for their members, giving them the advantage of learning from someone who understands their specific industry. Your local office of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) should be able to help you find associations in your area.
- The federal government sponsors a wide range of mentor organizations for small business owners that are accessible both in person and online. One of the most established is SCORE, which has operated nationwide for the last half-century to provide free and confidential counseling through a network of business executives, leaders and volunteers. The Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) are readily available through the U.S. and its territories and provide management assistance to current and prospective small business owners. They are administered by the SBA and are partnerships between the government and colleges. There are also Women’s Business Centers, Veteran’s Business Outreach Centers and the Minority Business Development Agency that provide business training and counseling to these unique demographic groups. Another excellent resource is BusinessUSA.gov, created by the Obama Administration as a centralized, one-stop platform where businesses can access services to help them grow and hire. Enter the word “mentor” in the site’s search engine for a lengthy list of programs and blogs dedicated to mentoring.
Once you’ve found a mentor who’s willing to work with you, there are some ground rules you should follow to make the relationship mutually beneficial and productive. These include:
- Set your objectives for your business growth and choose your mentor accordingly. If you have multiple issues you want to address (financing, marketing, etc.), you’ll probably need more than one mentor since few are experts in all aspects of running a business.
- Commit yourself to make the most of the guidance you receive. If you don’t act on your mentor’s advice and implement their suggestions, they may lose interest in helping you.
- Be respectful of your mentor’s time. Keep your meetings short (30 minutes or less should suffice) and arrive prepared to discuss specific issues.
- Take the lead in the discussion. You should be the one to propose the agenda, drive the discussion and ask your mentor for their input.
- Stay engaged throughout your meeting and beyond. Take notes during the meeting, create action items that need to be addressed and be ready to review your progress when you meet again.
- Stay in touch on a regular basis. A quick written note, email or voicemail to keep your mentor informed of your progress will be greatly appreciated by them. Don’t forget to thank them for their input.
- Maintain a productive and positive mentor-mentee relationship. Both of you should be getting something positive out of the arrangement. If that ceases to be the case, it may be time to end the relationship rather than have it end abruptly on a negative note.
Beth Longware Duff is a professional editor and award-winning writer whose work on a wide variety of topics has been published in print and electronic media. She currently writes on a wide range of topics dealing with electronic payment processing for Merchant Express.