How to pick a mentor

The world operates only because of greed and scarcity, one might say. Less dramatically looking, we just have to consider our positioning and understand the value distribution in our context.

For about 3 years now I have monitored and learnt how this ”mentoring business” works for startups and entrepreneurs. I’ve found some patterns that tend to repeat themselves again and again. Can’t say it’s too easy to find and select the best possible mentor for yourself. Me myself, I’ve always been kind of fascinated about psychology and how to fit in among different expert crowds. Eventually it led me to lead people and do what Immanuel Kant once said is “the most immoral thing to do – use people as means/tools to get what you’re after.

Shortly, there are some fundamental questions that might help you in your selection process. Answering these should get you closer to your actual end-game. Who, why, what, how, whom, when, how long, how much? Yes, each mentor’s personality differs, their experiences and ability to guide you throughout your challenges differs. Some love to talk, some about themselves, only. Some enjoy how you don’t know a thing and he knows it all. Some deal cards themselves first. Some dig deep into your problems. Some stay afar and let you experience and learn your own mistakes. Some get inspired from the challenge, yet some are afraid of falling off the bullet-proof pattern. Some prefer to teach a program, some to solve new puzzles.

It’s like when you buy a car or a new laptop, oh yes – a new iPhone. You do your research and you pick the best set of features for the money you got, or you top that with monthly payment and lease, what you can’t afford at the moment, as you believe this new device will help you achieve better results faster, cheaper, or whatever the excuse is for you at the moment.
But hey! Isn’t that exactly what you need a mentor or coach for?

And what is your role in this relationship? Have you thought about that. What’s the thing you bring to make this relationship work? I, as a mentor, coach and adviser, have learnt a great deal from my clients. How attitudes change perspectives, how synergy of different personalities and backrounds makes way better results than similar people. After all this is a relationship where both sides gain. Or at least I think so and consider this a norm, as I am not taking any clients who I dislike for some reason or who’s business is boring or where I cannot help significantly. Oh yes, this happens roughly 10%. Mostly it’s just that clients are unaware of what to expect and how to use my time for their best.

And now, who – are these mentors? Believe or not, they all are not equally qualifying like some sort of devices. They are organic self-evolving resources with feelings, emotions and own hidden agendas. They have learnt tons of disciplines and have experienced pains and gains. No, take nothing for granted. You are about to play with fire, not knowingly obviously, hoping that the wiser and more experienced one will take the responsibility. But do they have the ethics you expect…? I’ve seen startups receiving really bad advice which serves mentor’s hidden agenda the best, but gives not much to startup. Looking at bigger picture – it makes sense. So, let’s think of these questions for a second.

Why – do you need a mentor after all? Have you thought about these exact reasons and goals you want to achieve. Is “mentor” the discipline you are craving for? Perhaps it’s coaching? Or advisory, or perhaps some sort of consultant or even dedicated hire to solve a specific case for you! Imagine sitting on an airplane engine without plane with pilots and crew attached to it! Yeah, exactly. But in this scenario you yourself are the pilot, telling others where to fly, how and when. So have a serious conversation with yourself or with your team and define the problem you want to overcome with additional external help. What would be the expected outcome and metrics how you measure the quality of your cooperation. Be as specific as you need to and as abstract as you wish – in the end, it’s about you getting better easier faster cheaper and avoiding mistakes a mentor is able to foresee for you.

What – you could get from a mentor or coach or advisor? What you want is what you get – simply put. Limiting questions you also limit received answers, therefore your own and company’s growth. Having a clear understanding of what is the problem you’re trying to solve, what are you willing to do and what sort of help are you looking from a mentor makes the nature of the relationship easier for both sides. I have had few cases when I couldn’t figure out what was the problem and why we spent the time. Wasting someone’s time is disrespectful, but this happens if you are not fully committed or/and unaware of your own agenda. So whatever work you do together, own these results or fight back till you are satisfied. A mentor is usually working for your good, so use their time on purpose and wisely, prepare if needed.

How – should you conduct your workshops or meetings, is really up to you. The important matter is rather how you sense the world yourself. Agree on methods and processes that both sides are able to work with. I, for example, like whiteboards, to write down all ideas and structures, how these relate to each other, as I am a visual. Yet I let my clients to tell me about the context – to listen to them. A common problem what I’ve learnt over 20y is that once you put people into a box and let them speak – they speak as big as the box is. Or is it a pattern of some sort. Doesn’t matter, same result. Once they have no boxes or patterns, then they are free to talk their mind. Sure, some pointing questions help them open up to reach to the real challenges. This is where a mentor, coach, advisor, consultant has to pick the discipline that works the best for one’s client.

To whom – are you looking mentoring service for? You want to develop your company, as like developing the team or founders or just yourself, or just one employee? Guess there’s no right answer to the question. It’s up to you at the time. When you’re looking a mentor for yourself as a founder, then it’s pretty clear and understandable. When it’s about evolving other founders with mentorship or even employees then it gets a bit more tricky. People carry their home problems to work and work problems to home. So, how to define problems you want to be solved, and therefore how to select right mentors? Or should perhaps anyone her-/himself find a mentor? Or should you wait until right mentor knocks on your door? OK, we don’t see that much, yet it happens.

When – is right time to pick yourself a mentor? I’d say never and always. Looking back at my 30 years business career, I could have done better, and worse. It’s been one hell of a joyride. Ups and downs are usually defined by myself. Referring what I do these days, well I have helped them see patterns, positions and something they could not themselves. For some it’s been groundbreaking. After few sessions they are off – they think they don’t need me. And for a while not, as they are implementing their ideas they got after working with me. That’s fine. That’s expected. Am waiting them back when they reach to next level and have next challenges they feel stuck with or they need trusted partner to discuss with. One should not limit the nature of the mentorship with long periods or 1 meetings. Go with the flow. Long relationships give better results for granted. But perhaps the time is not right for you, yet. A small nudge will do time after time.

For how long should you engage your mentor or coach? When to finish? how long meetings should you have? Will remote work as good as physical meetings?
When looking back, I did a little better, when I had a mentor at my side, always. I obviously did a lot to learn from others, from my own experiences, then ventilated my ideas with my mentor. At some point I felt – I’ve learnt it all. And I felt wrong. My experiences taught me that later with higher price tag. Looking back I always did a little better when I had someone at my side. I evolved faster, I pushed harder, my decisions had greater impact. I’d have someone at my side now, all the time, to discuss, to fight if needed to define right questions to deal with at right time.

How many mentors or coaches should one have is rather personal question and depends perhaps of the nature of business. Some are life coaches for a reason as they like personal matters, as everything starts from there. I instead like business coaching and mentoring, that triggers me. Personal stuff is crucial – yeah, but I’d rather let someone else take that role for my mentee or coachee. Some claim one should have at least 5 coaches who cover one’s business fully. Some prefer to work with 1 only. I’d recommend to ask yourself if your current mentor/s are capable and adequate to help you with all your matters and are you able to process so much information in such a short time?

Intensity is definitely something to consider. Yes, people learn few different languages at the time better than just 1. Learning 20 at the time might again slower the process significantly. When are you implementing these changes that you just understood – you have to? I myself have seen that my sessions tend to last rather 2h and more at first. But later these shrink to 1h. Interval between meetings is often a week, that’s kind of the best. If it’s 10 days or 14 days, people start to forget the feeling and focus. 3-4 weeks intervals are already for some other type of collaboration.

How much should you invest your time and money? The question is also really tricky to answer from the other end. Fact is, no coach, advisor, consultant or mentor will fly high without you doing your part. And now we realise why different mentors charge differently – or why someone is offering their time, knowledge, expertise for free (yeah, because they got their own agenda). To explain you a little, mentors don’t work like dentists or barbers – each hour a new client. Nope. If mentors work with clients for about 25% to 30% of their time, then it’s for a reason – a better quality and dedication is provided. You on your side would want to have a fully committed and engaged partner who works for you with you, right? That also explains their hourly rates together with their previous experiences and expertise. And you really don’t want to buy a corporate consultant selling one’s hours, you want results based on your context.

What’s the positioning then? Who benefits from the cooperation the most? Who less? How much benefit is enough? How to value the amount of benefit? Does it all matter?
I’d think of it in a way that – I matter, what I get matters. So it means I has to have an agenda – what for I is hiring a mentor, coach, advisor, consultant. Agenda positions you and lets others to take their positions. When these fit and you find grounds for collaboration where agendas are fulfilled – well you got a deal. But never assume mentors don’t have their own sacred agendas. Perhaps they are not yelling it out loud why they are mentoring, but they sure do their reasons. Offering mentorship for free, for example, could happen if mentor is unsure of oneself yet or has something to win from your relationship that covers the time mentor spends on you. There might be other reasons as well. Your job is to understand and to position your partners as well as yourself. And sometimes it clicks, sometimes not. But don’t fall for names and titles. It’s a marketing and you know it as well as me. Rather look for synergies. One of my best workshops was actually collision of experiences, mentors from corporate and startup worlds fought to strengthen startup’s business model and services pool. Yet, don’t forget to understand when what discipline or method works the best for whom.

Where to find mentors? Often mentors are given when startups join accelerator programs initiated by VCs or city and state governments. In Facebook there are business groups where to ask around. One way is to make direct contacts with mentors when someone seems right for you. There are HR agencies that initiate mentorship programs for bigger companies. Mentors sign up themselves in different portals and create their own websites. Some try to monetise their expertise and experiences creating trainings, some remain to deal with custom challenges. And frankly – this is my own attempt to get some attention and make you think of me as your guide, opponent, help on your success ladder.

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