Let’s start by defining a Mentor. Merriam Webster defines a mentor as “an experienced and trusted adviser” and for most people that adequately explains the individual we might look to for career advice. Synonyms for mentor include counselor, guide, teacher, advisor, and even guru. But the word mentor (to mentor) is also a verb: the act of advising a colleague. The practice of providing counsel to younger or less experienced colleagues is a time-honored process which was historically reserved for upwardly mobile males within an organization. Today it is more broadly applied to the matching of younger workers with more experienced staff to help them mature into the kinds of employees the company needs and create a positive career path for the younger worker.
Mentoring Your Employees
As a business owner you undoubtedly have occasion to advise younger workers, but mentoring implies a more long-term arrangement whereby the mentor considers both the employee’s talents and shortcomings and offers advice in a broad variety of areas which might fall outside the realm of what a typical boss/employee might discuss. I’m certainly not suggesting you give relationship advice – but a hint that a business reception is not a party and a different standard of behavior is in order might be appropriate. Similarly, a mentor might create or encourage the mentee to have experiences which will be instructive for the future: like sending your colleague to a conference where they will interact with a range of people in the industry; or taking them to a high-end restaurant where a different level of manners is on display. You evaluate the individual and consider what areas that person will need to improve to flourish in your business or industry, then help them acquire that knowledge.
At the same time, you will encourage and support those talents which make him or her valuable. The self-starter who looks for additional responsibility should find some of it in new tasks which are a bit of a stretch. The person with a talent for writing should get the opportunity to use it in different ways (The website? The annual report? Public relations?) without giving up a secure job. The point is to encourage the employee to learn new skills and, thereby, expand their value to the company and expand their career options. It won’t hurt their resume either.
Mentoring/Being Mentored by Outsiders
The relationship between a mentor and mentee is not confined to those employed by the same firm. Many valuable and long-lasting mentoring bonds occur outside the company. You may mentor, or be mentored by, another business owner, for instance.
If you could create a long-term relationship with a mentor who understood your business, had deep experience you lack, and would freely provide counsel on a broad range of topics from vendor relationships to industry marketing norms, wouldn’t you pursue that individual? Think of having a mentor as a connection to invaluable advice and experience for free. As you mature in your career you learn a great deal about subjects and people which no one ever thought to teach you. What a mentor does is provide that information: tell you what is important and what isn’t, who to trust and when to be somewhat cautious.
The mentor also affords you a valuable sounding board. When is it time to expand? When do you cut your losses on a product line? Should you borrow or seek investors? So many topics need discussing with someone who is on your side and knowledgeable. Your sister-in-law the engineer may be a terrific person, but what does she really understand about a plumbing supply business? Having someone to talk with about the big issues could make a major difference to your business.
If you are mentoring a smaller or younger company, learn as much about them as possible without requesting access to information which may make the owner uncomfortable. Yes, you would have a fuller picture of the cash crunch if you could evaluate the numbers, but until he or she offers, don’t ask. You are there as a resource, a cheer leader and confidant. You provide the best advice based on your own experience and what you have observed about the company. There is much you have learned which is of inestimable value to someone starting out and willingness to share that could prevent some of the more egregious errors in judgement which lead to the downfall of too many young companies.
The basic premise here is that those with more experience share that knowledge with those who have less, thereby enhancing their future prospects. What could be more logical?