Finding a mentor: 7 qualities a young entrepreneur should look for
- EFN Staff | March 10, 2015
This article appears as part of a series from the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) in honour of the 2015 Young Entrepreneur Award, where Canadian business owners aged 18 to 35 compete for a grand prize of $100,000 and a second prize of $25,000 in consulting services from BDC.
For young entrepreneurs, finding the right mentor can mean the difference between success and failure in their new business.
A good mentor acts as a sounding board for your ideas and concerns, holds you accountable for your commitments and provides you with encouragement and wise advice when you need it.
So what kind of a person should you seek in a mentor? Here are seven qualities to look for.
Someone who’s a good fit for you—If your company is in the start-up phase, you should be looking for a successful entrepreneur with a broad range of business knowledge and skills.
But beyond that, you need to make sure you have good personal chemistry. That’s why you should first do a thorough self-assessment, says Linda Morana, Mentor in Residence at Futurpreneur Canada, which offers financing and mentorship to entrepreneurs aged 18 to 39. Consider your strengths and weaknesses, vision for your business and what you’re looking for in a mentor.
Then, take your time to finding the right person. Go for a coffee with prospective mentors and talk not only about what you want to achieve in your business, but also what’s important to you in other aspects of your life. What kind of a person is your proposed mentor? And what is he or she looking for from the relationship?
“You’ve got to get a feel for this person and whether or not you will get along,” says Ryan Jackson, a veteran mentor in Medicine Hat, Alberta, who won the 2014 BDC Mentorship Award.
“Don’t think you have to settle for the first person you meet. It’s like dating, really. That’s how personal it gets. You need to like and trust each other.”
Someone who will be available—Jackson, former Entrepreneur in Residence at Medicine Hat College, says it’s important to find a mentor who will be there to talk to you on a regular basis. A weekly sit-down is ideal, but depending on how the relationship develops you may want more or less frequent conversations. For example, Jackson checks in frequently by text message with a young entrepreneur he’s mentoring. What’s critical is that your mentor is committed to the relationship and has the time to devote to it.
Someone who’s a good listener—Your mentor isn’t there to solve your problems. Instead, he or she should help you to think through your challenges and find your own answers. That’s how you learn to be a better entrepreneur.
“Entrepreneurs will have struggles and they need someone to talk to,” Jackson says. “When a mentor asks the right questions and listens, pretty soon a young entrepreneur will find the answer simply by telling you what they’re facing. It starts to become evident to them as they explain what the solution might be.”
Someone with a positive attitude—A mentor’s role in encouraging you and building your confidence is crucial. In fact, it was identified as one of the most important benefits of a mentor relationship in a Futurpreneur survey of more than 500 young entrepreneurs, Morana says.
“A mentor can be a really great supporter and cheerleader and help you regain your confidence when you’ve had a setback,” she says.
Someone with an open mind—Jackson says entrepreneurs accumulate “battle scars” over the years—attitudes that reflect their own business experiences. These attitudes may sometimes colour their reaction to your ideas and challenges in a way that may not be appropriate for your situation. That’s why you should look for a mentor who keeps an open mind to your unique approach and business situation.
More generally, Morana says good mentors are “learning oriented—people who are always looking to develop or improve themselves. They will go into a mentoring relationship with more of an open mind and not be as prescriptive or directive.”
Someone who will treat you as an equal—You’re looking for someone who will be in your corner and give you support and advice when you need it. You’re not looking for a boss. Yet, some mentors default to that role because they’re so used to managing employees in their own business, Jackson says.
“You want to be careful if you get that vibe that makes you say: ‘I might as well get my parents to do this because they’re treating me like a kid.”
Someone who won’t pull punches—While you want a good listener, you also need a person who can help you to make a tough decision when necessary.
“A mentor needs to be there to make sure the entrepreneur doesn’t drive off into the ditch,” Jackson says. “It doesn’t happen often, and most of the time, they will correct before they hit the ditch. But sometimes you have to grab the wheel.”
So where do you find a mentor? Jackson says you can approach an experienced businessperson you know or use one of the mentorship programs offered by local organizations and educational institutions.
Jackson recommends Futurpreneur Canada’s program because it has a well-structured approach to putting together mentors and young entrepreneurs and giving the relationship the best chance of success.
For information and advice on mentorship, check out Futurpreneur’s mentorship crash course.