Business_Mentor_body.jpgBy Erin O'Donnell.

Bob Kroon had just started offering his services as a business mentor when a young Silicon Valley CEO contacted him earlier this year. The young man owned a video production startup, and he was having trouble finding employees with the skills he needed.

Kroon, a product development veteran with nearly three decades of corporate experience, realized the CEO had the know-how for his business, but not the network. Kroon helped his client tap into local organizations for video professionals, suggested he ask his current staff for recommendations, and even looked through his own contacts.

"A mentor can add value for a young person who doesn't have many connections and help him find the right resource or partner with the skills he's looking for," Kroon said.

Of course, anyone at any stage of business can benefit from mentorship. But a mentor can be especially useful to small business owners, who often feel isolated, or are overwhelmed by duties that aren't their strengths.

Read on to discover some of the main benefits of working with a mentor.

Goal-setting and strategy

Business owners tend to seek out mentorship when they're stuck at a crossroads, or feel that the business is stagnant, says Lisa Hendrickson, founder of Spark City. The company, with offices in New York City and Albuquerque, provides training and strategic services to small businesses that are moving out of the startup phase into an enterprise model.

"Business owners find themselves on the verge of new territory all the time," Hendrickson says, noting that sales growth, pricing strategy, and organizational structure are just a few of the issues they face.

That's why it's important to set concrete goals for the business, she says, and develop action steps to get there. A coach can help you determine the appropriate steps for your goal. "We talk a lot about strategy and connecting day-to-day activities with our long-term goals," Hendrickson says.


Objective feedback in a safe setting

A mentor can offer advice on issues you may not want to share with your investors or staff. Kroon's Silicon Valley-based firm, Expeerious, offers one-on-one coaching plus access to peer advisory boards. Groups of seven or eight owners of non-competing businesses meet to seek and share unbiased feedback in confidence.

It's important to get advice from someone without an emotional of financial stake in the business, Hendrickson agrees. Many clients come to her with misinformation and unsolicited advice that clouds their judgment.

Developing leadership skills

For new entrepreneurs, one of the most difficult transitions to make is from employee to business owner, Hendrickson says. A coach can help you develop the leadership skills your company needs for growth.

Let's say you've reached the point where you can no longer make your product yourself. Hendrickson gives the example of a baker who starts out making cupcakes in her kitchen. As her business grows, she must eventually hand over the day-to-day baking to trusted staff members so she can oversee the big picture.

"You get to a point where all the things you learned while baking at your house are no longer applicable," Hendrickson says.

How to find a mentor

Most startups reach a transitional stage after three years, Hendrickson says. By that time, many entrepreneurs have pivoted away from their original idea, they've discovered what works, and they're poised for growth. That's usually an ideal time to seek mentorship.

But how do you find the right fit? According to Kroon, competency is part of the equation. So is chemistry. "Underneath all mentoring is the term 'trust,'" he says. "It takes time. You have to learn how each other thinks."

Look to your own network. Is there another business owner who has accomplished what you want? Network with others in your industry, and ask for coach referrals. The U.S. Small Business Administration also has a guide to finding mentors within organizations such as SCORE, Small Business Development Centers, the Minority Business Development Agency, and others.

Finally, come prepared. Hendrickson recommends that business owners take time to define what they're dissatisfied with in the business, and what they're trying to achieve. Quoting renowned executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, she says: "What got you here won't get you there."

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