Working with Business Advisors and Mentors

business advisors

Yesterday I was asked how entrepreneurs should work with business advisors and mentors, but instead of giving a snap answer, I decided to unpack the question.  Here are my thoughts:

What are the differences between coaches, teachers, advisors, and mentors?

Typically business advisors and mentors are people who help in an informal way and are not compensated unless they take on a formal role with your company.  This is different than what you should expect from a teacher or a coach:

“Mentorship is a back and forth dialog – it’s as much about giving as it is about getting. It’s a much higher-level conversation than just teaching. Think about what can we learn together?  How much are you going to bring to the relationship?  If it’s not much, then what you really want/need is a teacher, not a mentor. If it’s a specific goal or skill you want to achieve, hire a coach, but if you’re prepared to give as good as you get, then look for a mentor.” (Source – Steve Blank)

Should I try to find just one mentor?

Not if your goal is to be a successful entrepreneur!  Jack Welch argues entrepreneurs need to absorb information as quickly as possible, from a variety of sources, and not be joined to a single mentor.

  • “[having] a mentor may be the dumbest idea that ever came down the pike.”
  • What you want is to have a “nose for knowledge.”
  • “You want to be looking at ten people.  I like the way this person speaks, I like the way that person makes presentations.”
  • “You can’t copy someone else, you want to be an amalgamation of the best ideas you can put together.”
  • “The most important thing is to get comfortable in your own shoes.”

What should I look for with advisors?

David Cohen wrote an excellent post called The Mentor Manifesto that provides a great framework for being a mentor.  The key takeaways you should apply to your search are as follows.  Look for someone who:

  1. Tells you the truth even when the truth hurts.
  2. Listens well.
  3. Acts in a timely manner.
  4. Is willing to say “I don’t know.”
  5. Can be trusted with confidential information.
  6. Provides specific advice but not orders.
  7. Values what you have to say.

How do I find business advisors?

Finding advisors and mentors is a process that takes months, if not years.  It should be an outgrowth of networking in your community.

Here is my suggestion:

  • Each week, have lunch or coffee with at least one person that could potentially be part of your network.
  • Meet with entrepreneurs of all stages:  People like yourself, people who have successfully built companies and when possible, people “way out of your league.”
  • Over the course of a year, you will find a few people you have a connection with and who show an interest in what you are doing.  Your goal should be to find three to five advisors.
  • Make time to meet with your advisors once per month.

Should the relationship be equal and balanced?

No, not initially.  Over time things will begin to shift, just as Brad Feld writes:

“When I look back on these and all the other mentors I’ve had (and continue to have today) and the people whom I now mentor, one thing stands out: the rare, but brilliant moment when the relationship shifts, the distinction between mentor and mentee dissolves, and you become “co-mentors.” Even if you aren’t “peers,” the learning becomes bi-directional. Everyone in a mentoring relationship should strive for this equilibrium, because it is here where the greatest learning occurs.”

What should we talk about?

Your meetings with business advisors should be informal, but you need to be prepared.  Build a list of questions or topics you are struggling with and put them on the table.  The discussion that follows is usually the mentor drilling into your problem and working with you to find the answer or helping you with a plan to find the answer.

You aren’t obligated to follow the advice of a mentor, but if you repeatedly ignore it, you will damage your relationship.  In addition, if you say you are going to do something, follow through – otherwise you are wasting valuable time.  Lastly, be thoughtful about how much you ask for versus how much you are offered.

And if you have an opportunity, pay it forward by mentoring someone else.

Photo credit:   MyDigitalSLR

About Tim Huntley

Tim is the COO at Paired Health, an early-stage healthcare IT company helping hospitals extend care out into the community. He the former CEO of Ganymede Software.