What to look for in a business mentor: 11 powerful qualities
There it is, glaring back at you at the end of each jam-packed day from the bottom of your to-do list: find a mentor. But how do you know what to look for in a business mentor? In this article, we’ll explain the 11 key qualities that separate an average mentor from an outstanding one.
Finding a business mentor who’s a good fit can seem daunting at first, but it’s certainly worthwhile. The right advice can shift your business forward months or even years.
What is a mentor?
A mentor is someone who provides guidance and advice for your business. A mentor usually advises the business owners, CEO, founder or co-founders.
Traditionally a mentor is unpaid and meets with the mentee (that’s you) regularly over the long term. That might be every two weeks or once a month, depending on their availability and the time sensitivity of what they’re advising you on.
Nowadays, there are many websites where you can hire a mentor by the minute to get specific answers to questions you may have on your mind. You might have several mentors — one mentor for marketing or product advice, and another for raising capital or general business growth management. Or, if you’re part of an incubator, you might have access to a whole pool of mentors for a period of time.
A mentor isn’t a consultant. A mentor’s remit is to listen, ask questions, and offer suggestions to help you learn to make good business decisions. A consultant on the other hand, is always paid, takes a brief, and provides solutions.
How do I find a business mentor?
And now for the mentor selection. Spending half an hour preparing for selecting a mentor will save you (and potential mentors) time in the long run. It will bring you closer to knowing what to look for in a mentor for your business. Consider these three things:
What does your business need guidance on most right now? Prioritise the subjects.
Which subjects do you already have expertise, mentorship, advisors or consultants supporting you with? Place names next to each of the subjects.
Now you’ve got the subjects and existing support mapped out, take a look at the highest priority subject. Do you have enough support? If not, that might be the subject you’re looking for a mentor with expertise in. Work your way through the subjects until you have a clear understanding of the areas you need most guidance on.
One more step for preparation before choosing a mentor: consider whether you’re ready to listen to the advice of a mentor with an open mind. Think about how you’ll ask questions and receive feedback so that you can get the most out of being mentored.
Being mentored is different to pitching, different to hiring, and different to briefing a consultant. You need to find someone you can trust and learn from. Now we’ll take a look at the qualities to look for when finding a business mentor.
11 powerful qualities to look for in a business mentor
Ideally, your mentor will have done something similar to what you’d like to achieve. Look for someone who’s six months to five years ahead of you on their journey. They will have made their way through a similar landscape to the one you’ll need to navigate and have the right skill set to share.
Think about the subjects you need help with. Do you need to find product-market fit, master cash flow or promote and market your existing product to a broader audience? Are you entering a specific vertical or geographic market? Look for a mentor who understands the areas you need help in. Keep in mind that a product-focused founder may not have a deep knowledge of marketing and vice versa.
Not a competitor
Having a competitor as a mentor is rarely conducive to building the trust that’s required. But that doesn’t mean you can’t select a mentor that’s coaching businesses in competition with yours. This can be advantageous as they’ll have deep knowledge of the market. Just make sure no proprietary information is shared outside the mentor-mentee relationship.
A mentor and mentee don’t need to agree on everything. In fact, healthy discussion will be far more beneficial than an echo chamber. For good mentor relationships, it’s helpful to find some alignment on shared values. That might look like agreement on employee benefits, work-life balance and competitive behaviour. If you lean towards co-op and they believe you should hold onto as much business ownership as you can, it may be hard to find common ground.
The mentor-mentee relationship demands significant vulnerability to work. You may also be asking them to be a sounding board for esoteric ideas. It’s beneficial to find someone who ‘gets you’.
Having respect for one another goes a long way in ensuring debate is respectful. You’ll be more open to ideas you hadn’t thought of, or which challenge your perspective. A respectful mentor separates their ego from the performance of you and your business and communicates directly and respectfully.
Ideally, your mentor will be doing most of the talking, because when you’re talking, you’re not learning. That said, your mentor will need to be able to hear what you’re trying to achieve, understand any challenges and tease out any underlying issues and opportunities.
Will teach you to fish
It sounds counterintuitive but great mentors don’t offer solutions. They ask good questions, and make suggestions. They help you to discover the information (and sometimes courage) you need to make successful decisions.
Simple. The best mentor in the world is no good if you can’t make your schedules match up at least once a month.
A mentor’s job includes sharing their perspective from the outside looking in. This is one of the most valuable and important parts of the mentor-mentee relationship. When you’re working on and in the business, it’s easy to miss risks and opportunities. You want a mentor who will tell you straight.
That’s not to say the opportunity to work with an entrepreneur who took the market by storm in the 90s couldn’t be a great opportunity. Consider what you need to learn most about. Is the mentor’s knowledge still relevant? If it’s supply chains you’re after and the players, technology and channels haven’t changed much, perhaps. But if you’re needing to learn how to launch in a market where eCommerce has completely changed since the mentor’s experience, you might need to find a more appropriate problem to soundboard with them, or keep looking.
Connections with people
It’s not essential, and introductions should never be assumed. But it sure does help if your mentor has good connections with people. They’ll be having conversations with their peers and their knowledge will be up to date. Plus, they just might introduce you to your next employee, mentor, co-founder, CEO or investor. Be sure to respect their professional relationships. Your behaviour can reflect on your mentor.
The next step for your business
At Airwallex, we’ve been lucky to have some great mentors who have helped propel our business forward. Ready to take your business even further? Add 3% back to your bottom line with global business accounts, multi-currency wallets, and payments services that bypass hidden fees and wasteful overheads. Create your free borderless account within minutes.
Writer, content strategist and storyteller. Shani is a digital marketer with a passion for brand storytelling and empathy-led copywriting. Responsible for Airwallex's content marketing efforts in Australia, and other parts of the world.