How do you find a mentor? The answer sounds simple: “Just ask.” However, for many people, that is easier said than done. There are different ways to ask someone to be a mentor, but the best way is to be direct, know what it is you want to learn, and then go for it. Many businesses in a variety of industries have barriers to entry that can only be overcome with the help of someone inside the trade.
“Respect is a two way street,” says Jay Terry, owner of Custom Metal Specialties in Oregon City, Oregon. Terry has opened his welding shop to younger men and women just starting out, who want to learn the artisanal techniques that go into the decorative metal work he is known for. Some of his protégés have successfully founded their own companies and others continue to learn and work alongside him on both commercial and artistic projects. “As a mentor, you have to respect their abilities, too,” Terry says.
Where can you find a teacher and coach to help show you the ropes of starting and successfully running a small business? SCORE, a nationwide nonprofit association has volunteer mentors in over 60 different industries dedicated to helping small businesses start and grow. In partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration, SCORE has been helping small business owners find mentors for more than 40 years and has a network of more than 13,000 volunteers who, like Terry, are very experienced in their particular fields and provide business mentorship services at no charge.
“What makes a good teacher is patience, tolerance and the ability to convey what you know,” says Terry. When it comes to opening and running a small business, this may include particular trade skills as well as general know-how about setting up the business, establishing business credit, or preparing financial statements.
Finding a mentor with the right fit will depend on personality, skills, and the desired outcome of both the mentor and the protégé. “When looking for a mentor, think beyond former bosses and professors. Look to older family members or friends, neighbors, spiritual leaders, community leaders, the networks of your friends and colleagues, or officials of professional or trade associations you belong to,” says Karen Burns for U.S. News and World Report.
A small business mentoring relationship, whether formal or informal, is a reciprocal one with something for both parties to gain. Sherry Linder is the owner of Seams to Fit, a consignment business that includes a home decorating store and a women’s clothing shop, known for personable service and high quality. Linder started her business out of a tiny storefront of just 300 square feet, and over the years, it has grown to occupy two large stores with spacious showrooms. Linder’s daughters came to work for Seams to Fit after graduating from college, learning about business ownership, customer relationships, and reciprocating by taking the business online and growing it in a new direction.
A friend or family mentoring relationship such as Linder’s is an informal one. “A family member who is mentoring must be capable of maintaining objectivity while being emotionally involved with his or her protégé. Their personal relationship should not distort the value of the advice and counsel,” says Mentoring author, Dr. Curtis Crawford.
What do mentors do, exactly? They give counsel in difficult times, offer encouragement and support, provide sponsorship, expect excellence, and promote visibility and exposure. They nurture creativity, help with growth and development, and act as a role model, say Brad Johnson and Charles Ridley in The Elements of Mentoring. The authors also describe the traits of excellent mentors: exuding warmth, listening actively, showing unconditional regard, embracing humor, not expecting perfection, being trustworthy, and respecting values.
Terry says that he finds trust is built over time with people, but he gets a good indication from the kinds of questions that they ask. Indeed, when looking for a mentor, asking questions is the most important way to clarify expectations. The PLU School of Business in Tacoma,Washington, provides a list of questions to ask a potential mentor for those just getting started in a particular field.
Finding and working with a mentor could turn out to be one of the best decisions you ever make for your small business, even if it requires stepping beyond your comfort zone at first. The mentorship relationship, whether a formal or informal arrangement, will evolve and change over time, passing through different seasons, wending a positive path to greater professional achievement.