Mentors offer help to build business

Janet Arrowood

Is your business moving in the direction you want at the pace you expect? If the answer is no — or even if it’s yes — perhaps it’s time to seek out a mentor or two.

Most people want to help, but they also want to be asked. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.

Mentors can be a big deal — especially for small, high-tech businesses looking for opportunities with the federal government. Many large prime contractors want to bid on projects that require some level of small business participation. These companies seek out, or are sought out by, small businesses with which they can team on lucrative contracts.

Try searching for “mentor-protégé” on federal government and tech company websites to see what’s out there. As an example, here’s the link for mentors for small businesses approved by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

There also are less formal forms of mentoring. Many chambers of commerce, economic development organizations and other groups can suggest or even make connections with mentors who want to help you improve and grow your business.

Before you start searching for a mentor — or consider becoming a mentor — you need to be clear about your needs, goals and expectations.

The role of a mentor is not the same as that of a coach. By definition, a mentor is a wise and trusted counselor or teacher, an influential sponsor or supporter. Mentoring consists of a long-term relationship focused on supporting the growth and development of the mentee. The mentor becomes a source of wisdom, teaching and support, but not someone who observes and advises on specific actions or behavioral changes in daily work. Keep that in mind when seeking a mentor or agreeing to mentor someone.

What should you expect from a mentor and what are they likely to expect from you? 

First, it’s best to draft a simple letter if you aren’t in a formal mentoring program involving a contract. A letter can spell out each person’s role and expectations to help avoid conflicts, disappointments or unrealistic expectations.

Next, schedule meetings and plan an agenda for each meeting.

Your mentor is there to ask hard questions and challenge you in ways that will help you grow in your position, better manage your company or rise in the hierarchy of an organization. He or she can help you identify areas of personal and business weakness and develop approaches to solve or mitigate these concerns. 

A mentor will often ask questions to help you evaluate your areas of concern and then, through questions and suggestions, help you develop a plan or mitigation strategy. At a subsequent meeting, your mentor will likely ask you about your progress and continuing concerns, repeating the process until both of you are satisfied with the results.

Mentors are a source of support and feedback, not an extension of business. They will support you, cheer your accomplishments and provide pointed feedback and relevant criticism to aid your growth and development. 

To gain the most from this relationship, you must be willing to listen, act and grow — as well as accept feedback without becoming defensive.

To get the most out of a mentor relationship, maintain an open mind. The process takes time, but the results are well worth the effort.