7 Dos and don’ts of a mentoring relationship

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You might know you need a mentor, but how do you find one and what on earth do you talk to them about?

At a Meet My Mentor event held by Inspiring Rare Birds and Ernst & Young in Sydney some of Australia’s leading entrepreneurs discussed the right and wrong ways of finding a mentor. And if there’s one thing they urged entrepreneurs to do, it’s cold-call.

1. DO reach out to complete strangers

If the thought of cold-calling a potential mentor to ask for business help terrifies you, then you need to get over it, because the answer will almost always be ‘yes’, says Switch Automation founder Deborah Noller.

Noller says reaching out to complete strangers is often considered “a very American thing to do”, but she says most people are happy to give all entrepreneurs time for a quick chat.

“In my experience anyone who reaches out, almost nobody says ‘no’ to them,” she says.

OnTheGo founder Mick Spencer says he cold-called two leading business people to see if they would offer him help. One was Inspiring Rare Birds founder Jo Burston, who was, at that stage, CEO of Job Capital. The other was Paul Zahra, former chief executive of David Jones.

“Jo said, ‘Fine, I’ll catch up with you. I’ve got 15 minutes for a coffee’. It wasn’t too dissimilar to Paul. I reached out to Paul, because I knew he’d help and I really admired his personal journey, as well as his time at David Jones and the transformation there,” he said.

2. DON’T think one-size-fits-all

Spencer says Burston encouraged him to have mentors with different business backgrounds and to find someone who could help him develop the retail component of OnTheGo.

“In my first year of business, when I was in my parent’s garage with boxes to the ceiling, Jo said, ‘write down all the people you want to learn from’ and I wrote down all the people I thought were amazing, not just in terms of what they’d done in business, but as individuals.”

From there he approached Zahra, who he describes as his “CEO mentor”. Spencer says the value proposition for entrepreneurs being mentored is the chance to talk to someone, “who has been in those shoes”.

“They can help you understand what it takes to succeed and they help you get there a whole lot faster. You can learn a lot more than you would if you tried to run your business without that help, because everyone makes mistakes,” he says.

3. DO look for a mentoring style that suits you

Pulse Marketing founder Lauren Fried says the way mentoring relationships work varies from one relationship to the next and there is no clear line where the sharing of business information stops and personal details begin.

When she was looking for a mentor, she says she wanted someone who would challenge her, not just lead her.

“One of my mentors simply talks to me in questions, that’s all he does. He’s not questioning what I’m doing, he’s asking questions so we can talk about them. He does that across my personal and business life and I need that because they’re very closely linked.”

4. DON’T think, ‘how much can I get out of this mentor?’

How you connect with a potential mentor is important, because it sets the tone for the relationship,

says CP Communications founder Catriona Pollard.

“It’s about how you actually reach out to them and how you build the relationship with them as well. It’s not just about ‘how much can I get from this mentor?’ It’s about going in knowing if you want this to be long term or that you can actually help as well. It’s a sharing of energy,” she says.

5. DON’T underestimate the value of the relationship

Burston says she has been able to meet individuals who she would never have come into contact with had it not been for her mentors.

“The biggest impact for me has been the doors it has opened — and that’s globally. Without doubt, I have met people and have done business and will do business in the future with people I would never have met in my life,” she says.

“The impact of that is that their radar is on me, so when they’re meeting people or talking to people that perhaps are interested in Rare Birds or Job Capital or one of my other businesses, they’re laying the groundwork for me and I get a message pretty quick to say, ‘Jo, I need to introduce you’ or ‘Jo, you need to meet this person and need to talk to this guy’.

6. DO be prepared to make big changes

“For me it was just learning to talk differently,” says Noller, who was mentored by Amy Millman, co-founder of Springboard Enterprises.

“I never had any doubt that I was building a global business… but if you listened to me you wouldn’t have known that’s what I was doing.

“Australians are really self-deprecating… we don’t like the person who brags and talks about how great they are and so you learn that,” she says. “We never say, ‘I am the CEO’.”

She says the way she was talking about her business had to change. “That’s where Amy mentored me quite savagely and she has managed to get me to talk quite differently now.

“I started to talk about ‘I’ and I can say that now without cringing and without worrying about what the rest of my team — who are all beavering away building the software — are thinking, because I’m standing up and taking all the credit. So I don’t worry about that anymore, I just wear that mantel.”

7. DON’T let a fear of rejection stand in your way

Spencer says indecisiveness and the thought of being rejected can prevent entrepreneurs from making the right decisions, but overcoming this fear is essential.

“I dropped out of uni when I started the business, I have a lot of people come to me with an idea and just want the validation to go out there and do it, and I suppose I didn’t know whether what I was doing was ever going to work out or not, but I did what my old man always told me, “never let fear stand in your way”.

Do you need a mentor or would you like to mentor others?  Rare Birds is launching its 2016 Mentorship Program and can match you with an industry expert to help grow your business or pair you with another entrepreneur to fast-track them to success. 

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