When you run your own business, you may also miss the professional network and support that a large company can offer. A mentor can act as a sounding board and expert advisor, to help you grow your business.
1. Choose a mentor who can be objective about your business.
“You need someone with an external viewpoint who can ask the tough questions and give you a clearer perspective on your business practices,” says David Gregory, CEO of the Small Business Mentoring Service in Victoria.
Friends and family usually don’t make good mentors because they want to be supportive of the business decisions you make.
2. Treat the mentoring relationship as a professional one.
You’re going to be sharing details of your business ideas, practices and challenges with your mentor, so make sure they sign a confidentiality agreement. “Our mentors sign an agreement that prohibits them from sharing your business information with anyone else, including the tax office,” says Gregory. “If your business is illegal or you are trading while insolvent, however, a mentor has a legal obligation to report it.”
3. Identify your business issues.
Try to identify what you think the challenges are before you look for a mentor. “For the first meeting, bring
along as much information as you can to give the mentor a clear picture of how your business operates,”
advises Gregory. “Bring your business plan or even a thumbnail sketch of a business plan if you have one, cashflow records and budgets, your marketing plan, examples of advertising you have run and what the results have been.”
4. Choose a mentor with the right experience and skill set.
Gregory says that experience is much more valuable than book learning when it comes to choosing a mentor. “Our own mentors are retired or semi-retired and have experienced business success. They’re looking to give something back to the communities that supported them. They’ve fallen into holes, pulled themselves out of holes and are looking to help other small-business owners avoid the same mistakes or get back on track.”
On reviewing the information you take along to the initial meeting, a mentor may suggest that the problem you think you have has a different underlying cause – for example, you don’t have a marketing problem, you have a cashflow one. Be prepared to follow their recommendations and consult a different mentor with more appropriate expertise, if necessary.
5. Be honest.
You might be reluctant to talk about the problems you are experiencing or feel embarrassed that you aren’t as successful as you hoped to be. “Some people wait until the second or third session with a mentor to talk about major issues,” says Gregory. However, the sooner you share your concerns, the sooner you can start addressing the challenges.
6. Be willing to commit time to the mentoring relationship.
Some business owners are content to address issues that come up with a one-off mentoring session, but Gregory recommends a minimum of four meetings if you want to see real progress.
“The first session is largely diagnostic; the mentor gets to know you and your business, identifies underlying problems and suggests some action points,” he says. “In the second session, the mentor will be able to see what steps you’ve taken, [and] this will give a clearer picture of how much you can take on from the action plan before the next session. By the fourth meeting, you should be seeing some real progress.”
A number of businesses maintain relationships with their mentors for
many years, perhaps meeting every quarter or twice a year to check they
are on track.
7. Hold yourself accountable.
One of the biggest misconceptions about mentoring is that it is a silver bullet that will solve all your business problems. Remember that the business is yours, not your mentor’s, so the responsibility to make changes lies with you.
Some business owners use a consultant to draw up a business plan that becomes a tome more suited for a doorstop than a guiding document for the business. “A business plan should be a living thing,” says Gregory.
“A mentor can support you and advise you, but they can’t write the business plan for you – you need to
Useful tools and resources
- The Small Business Mentoring Service (SMBS) is a Victorian-based organisation with more than 100 volunteer business mentors. It offers one-on-one mentoring services, as well as council business clinics, a mobile business centre and state-funded mentoring in disaster areas. One-on-one services cost $100 for an initial consultation (approx. 1.5 hours). Each follow-up consultation costs $80.
- Other states offer workshops, chambers of commerce and industry groups that can give mentoring support and / or may help you find a business mentor.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and the interviewees, and not of Australia Post.
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