Most of the successful entrepreneurs I know have had or do have a mentor. It’s one of the most admired and sought after relationships in business (despite what they said on Seinfeld). Now, this may seem like a funny question, but if you have a mentor, I want you to think about how you’d describe that person. Keep that mental list in mind, as you read about my mentor experience.
One of the best mentorships I ever had almost didn’t happen. After finishing my graduate degree, I didn’t know what to do. I hated my then-current job, but didn’t want to compound my misery by taking another random job. Through a friend, I learned of a mentoring program at my college.
As described, the program seemed like the perfect fit for where I was professionally and mentally: work with a group of peers and an assigned mentor to explore different career options. However, the first time I spoke with “Susan,” the group leader, I was ready to do her bodily harm. I now consider her to be one of my most trusted advisors and a dear friend, but Susan challenged me on every point.
From whether I should go back to school to if I had enough experience to start my own business, Susan pushed back. But I was committed. I felt like I needed this program even though the first few times we met, I borderline hated her. Susan didn’t “get” me and what I wanted. As I realized later, Susan “got” me just fine.
I’d like to think it was wisdom on my part, but really it was just pure stubbornness that kept me going back. And for the rest of my life, I’ll be grateful that, whatever the reason, I stuck with the program and Susan. Over the year-long program, she proved herself to be one my strongest advocates.
Susan wanted my success so much so that she refused to let me get away with anything. If I responded, “I don’t know,” to one of her questions, she wouldn’t let it go. She asked the question again the next time we met. Susan knew that I needed the answers to these questions to figure out what I wanted from life. And it was with her guidance and support that I finally determined I was indeed ready to start my own business. It took me nine months in the program to reach that point.
It’s been six years, and it doesn’t overstate things in the slightest to say that Susan’s mentorship changed my life. I almost didn’t let that mentorship happen because I thought I knew what I wanted in a mentor, and Susan didn’t fit that image. Now let’s go back to your mentor list. What traits came to mind?
Smart? Talented? Experienced? Dedicated? Helpful? Nice? Kind?
There are probably many more, but it’s the last two I mentioned that I want to discuss. If the words “nice” or “kind” were the first or second words that came to mind, then I’d argue that this person isn’t your mentor. He or she is your friend, and it’s a problem if you’re serious about wanting the benefit of a mentor.
This was the mistake I made when I started the mentor program. In reality the best mentors for an entrepreneur are the ones who worry less about hurting your feelings and more about if you’ll succeed. While I’m only a sample size of one, I have a hard time seeing how I would have gotten from where I was to where I am if Susan had been more nice than relentless. It may also be true that I’m in the minority of people who responds well to that type of relationship.
However, if you’ve been having doubts, and wondering about your current mentor, wonder no more. You should want the pushback, the hard questions, and the demand to think smarter and admit mistakes sooner. You’ve got friends to console you when things go wrong. You want a mentor that helps you figure out how to make it right, and that rarely involves telling you that you were right in the first place.
Don’t be afraid to want this kind of relationship or to look for it elsewhere. Being an entrepreneur is hard enough, so don’t compound your stress by settling for a friend when what you really need is a mentor.
Does this make sense? How do you choose a mentor? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.