Learning from experience is a huge part of building a successful business. While your own experience is important, learning from other business owners that have been there before you is also a great strategy.
Mentors can help small business owners take their ventures to the next level by giving meaningful ‘been there, done that’ advice and insight. But where do you find a mentor? And, more important, how do you find someone who is a good fit for you and your business?
It starts by surrounding yourself with the right people in the right networks and having a well-thought-out strategy. If you feel that you could benefit from having a mentor, then you need a clear understanding of the specific skills and experience that you already have in order to determine the type of mentor you need.
Identify Where You Stand
Like any business strategy, finding a mentor starts with identifying where your strengths lie and where there is room for improvement. A good way to identify these gaps is by conducting a standard SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis. Your goal should be to align your strengths with the opportunities you find in the marketplace, and to eliminate any weaknesses that align with threats in the marketplace. This will help you determine skill sets and experience that you may want in a mentor.
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Surround Yourself With a Strong Network
The beauty of mentors is that you may find them in unexpected places, so it is important to build and maintain a strong network. Just remember to not limit yourself too much by making a wish list; be open to guidance from anyone who understands the vision for your business and can offer valuable insight.
In fact, it may not even be necessary to seek out a mentor in the same industry. You simply need to make sure that your key business principles and corporate values are in reasonable alignment.
Oftentimes, mentors are naturally attracted to a protégé with whom they can willingly share lessons learned as well as advice on how to avoid challenges they may have experienced in growing their own company. Fostering an organic mentoring relationship like this can happen by simply getting to know someone within a professional organization or at an industry event.
One industry event series that’s valuable to those looking for a mentor is ChallengeHER, a partnership between American Express OPEN, the Small Business Administration (SBA), and Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP). The program offers free events across the country that teach small business owners how to do business with the federal government, and provides workshops, insights from experts, and networking opportunities for contractors in local communities.
Keep an Open Mind
In some cases, such as in a government contracting space, large prime corporations announce if and when they are looking to mentor companies in mutually beneficial business arrangements. Such arrangements are typically formalized within a government agency and have very specific performance milestones, training, and technical assistance plans outlined for the protégé.
Like any other relationship, there is often a courtship in the beginning to make sure that the match is a good fit. During the start of the relationship, mentors and protégés can evaluate the key principles and values of the other party while keeping an open mind that a productive and valuable relationship is one where constructive criticism plays a major role.
If you keep your radar on and are open to opportunities to get to know individuals who are interested in sharing advice, the right mentor for you will come along. In summary, keep these three things in mind when seeking a mentor:
- Know where you need help to develop yourself as a leader and business owner so you have a plan in mind (i.e., SWOT).
- Keep your eyes and ears open to any potential opportunities to engage with others, as good mentors may be found in the most unexpected ways.
- Be open to honest evaluation and criticism about what you are doing right as well as any challenges you must overcome to grow.
It takes a bit of work to find the right mentor, but once you do, he or she can be an invaluable force behind your success.
About Doña Storey
Doña Storey is the American Express OPEN Advisor on Scale Up, advising entrepreneurs on how to find rapid growth through corporate and government procurement as well as helping large organizations scale their entrepreneurial partners to better meet demand in both the commercial and government marketplaces. She is an entrepreneur herself with extensive experience running and scaling up a business. For more information, visit www.openforum.com/governmentcontracting.