December 20, 2012 | 5-minute read (889 words)
At this time of year, when there is a whole lot of talk about giving and receiving, I thought it seemed timely to discuss mentorship. I have many mentors whom I constantly utilize as resources. These mentors have been incredibly important to me, an integral part of my success. On the flip side, as a CEO, I consider being a mentor to be one of my most important responsibilities; mentoring is an obligation to my company and to my ecosystem community. I spend as much time with folks I consider to be mentors as I do in mentoring others.
In addition to mentoring people at all levels of our organization, I also mentor other CEOs. As CEO of Early Growth Financial Services (with CEOs of a wide array of companies as my clients) I think I have some “answers,” and, of greater importance, I have a lot of good questions. Helping other CEOs to do their jobs better is an exciting part of my job; I relish the opportunity to interact daily with CEOs and to help them to focus on doing what they do best.
Being a mentor is innately rewarding, but the point is altruistic. Just as with building a partnership, you can’t go into a mentorship relationship asking, “What’s in it for me?” There is a selfless quality to mentorship that some people might find at odds with the very idea of entrepreneurship, but, in actuality, it’s an essential part of what we do. I know how invaluable it has been for me to be a mentee so I am always happy to “pay it forward” and be a mentor myself.
Mentoring is a very personal relationship, with each mentor/mentee relationship being uniquely a result of the two parties. But, there are some overriding characteristics that I believe make for a good mentor and result in powerful and effective mentorship relationships.
Based on my personal experience (both as a mentor and as a mentee) here are the top ways to be a great mentor:
1. Listen. Your job is to be a sounding board. Your mentee should know that you are available to hear them out on any thoughts, concerns, or issues they may have. Listening comes first. Through talking to you, your mentee will be able to find their own to their own best course of action.
2. Share your mistakes. Your willingness to share your own failures and shortcomings will be a great asset to your mentee. It’s not always easy to reveal your imperfections, but sometimes the greatest lessons lie in mistakes made. Be open to sharing all of your relevant experiences, the good, the bad, and even (and especially!) the ugly. Each will hold a useful kernel of truth for your mentee.
3. Be credible. Even if you have a small area of expertise, this can be useful for the right mentee. Provide mentorship for what you know—this doesn’t have to be everything. Your specialization is your key to valuable mentoring.
4. Ask open questions. Asking open questions is key to drawing out your mentee and guiding them through challenging situations. The point is not for you to make the decisions for your mentee; your goal is to ask pointed questions that get them thinking comprehensively through a given situation.
5. Offer objectivity. The beauty of a mentor is your unattachment. With distance comes clarity. You can provide an objective perspective on your mentee’s issues because their issues are not your own.
6. Be supportive. You should be a cheerleader for your mentee. They need to know that you believe in them and will support them—and will provide them with a much-needed ego boost, on occasion! You’re not only there to help them work through issues. You also want to be there when times are good, to point out their achievements and small and large successes.
7. Model good entrepreneurial behavior. Mentees learn indirectly from their mentors as much as they do from any didactic lessons you may try to impart. If you want to teach your mentee how to be a successful and respected entrepreneur, then you need to demonstrate this behavior yourself: fairness, honesty, passion, drive, commitment.
Some people believe that their number one responsibility as a mentor is to offer advice. I think this is a mistake. Constructive feedback is helpful, but direct advice is usually not the way to go. Of course, if your advice is directly requested, give it, but otherwise offer advice sparingly. Ultimately you will better serve your mentees if you can provide the support and validation they need to learn to work through their issues themselves and to gain confidence in their own entrepreneurial insight.
Are you a mentor, or do you benefit from mentorship? Tell us about it in comments below.
David Ehrenberg is the founder and CEO of Early Growth Financial Services, a financial services firm providing a complete suite of financial and accounting services to companies at every stage of the development process. He's a financial expert and startup mentor, whose passion is helping businesses focus on what they do best. Follow David @EarlyGrowthFS.