What we're talking about

A mentor is a figure who channels their knowledge and experience to guide you. It's a pretty personal relationship where you'll meet regularly – fortnightly, monthly or quarterly – and where the mentor acts as a sounding board; they'll be on hand to offer advice and moral support, prompt you to rethink your path or problems and share a valuable external perspective. As the mentee, you'll play an active role by taking on board comments and feedback and maximizing the relationship. 

It might be a friend of a friend who's founded a business like yours, a senior member of your industry or a small business owner you're connected with through a scheme. There are similarities to coaching, but you'd ideally never pay for this type of advice, and it's tied to personal experience rather than any kind of curriculum.

Why it's important 

What you gain from mentorship will vary from case to case – and even from week to week. Your mentor might be able to share opportunities and connections, offer an indispensable perspective (the kind that only having ‘been there, done that’ can provide) or work with you on building resilience and professional confidence. 

The impact can be huge. Having someone you trust and who you're able to talk to openly and honestly can boost your personal wellbeing and improve your business' performance. It's particularly effective when you have a strong idea of what your goals – and hurdles – are. US nonprofit SCORE facilitated free mentorship for more than 500,000 clients in 2021, and found that those who participated for more than three hours reported higher revenues and increased growth. That being said, finding the right person is key. If you don't click, neither of you will enjoy or learn from the time you spend together. You also don't want someone without the appropriate insight, as they could lead you in the wrong direction.  

Things to note 

Don't just take. Just because mentors tend to work from a position of generosity, it doesn't mean that you shouldn't be thinking about what you can bring to the table. You need to remember that, like all relationships, this is a two-way thing. Mutual benefit will help it flourish. As you search for a mentor, look for people who you might also be able to assist, and position whatever it is you've got to offer front and center as you approach them. Your mentor might value your insights as someone younger, or could one day see financial returns from investing in your business.

You can develop the relationship naturally. For some people, finding a mentor involves signing up to a scheme or service. But, for the rest, it's more like formalizing a personal relationship you already have, or putting yourself out there and building a new one. What probably won't work is emailing a bunch of people you respect asking: ‘Will you be my mentor?’, or trying to elicit commitment from someone straight after meeting them. Building up a relationship gradually is the way to go, before the mentor-mentee structure emerges. And you don't even have to put the label ‘mentor’ on it.  

Know what a mentor can't do. Mentorship has its limits. Recognizing these is crucial, so that you don't expect too much and set some boundaries early on. You can pay consultants, coaches and mental health professionals for top-of-the-range advice, training and therapy; these aren't necessarily in your mentor's remit. Likewise, your mentor won't do work for you or tell you exactly what to do. Disagreements might happen – it's part of the process. 

Look for particular personal qualities. Whether or not there's professional chemistry between you and your mentor-to-be is the most important thing. Do you look at the world in the same way? Have they had the kind of career you want? Sometimes a peer or someone who's just slightly ahead of you in your career can be the best mentor for you. However, there are also character traits that most good mentors have, such as integrity, honesty and positivity. Your mentor should also be caring, open-minded and capable of listening, digesting and communicating effectively.

How to find a mentor 

1. Work out what kind of person you want. List the traits and experience you're looking for in a mentor. Why do you want one, and what value are you hoping it'll add to your work? Having a clear shape of the person you're looking for will guide you with regards to where to look. Don't be too specific, however, because many different people from many walks of life can give value.  

2. Think about your existing connections. It makes sense to start with those you know. Think about your personal, academic and professional circles – those whose input would be valuable and who would be happy to hear from and help you. Ask those close to you if they know anyone relevant who might have mentored before or is an expert in your sector and look to get some informal introductions. 

3. Or apply for a scheme. There are a fair few targeted mentorship programs for business owners. Some are organized by governments, charities and large corporations; others come when you join a business incubator or accelerator. Applying for one of these is the simplest way to go about things; you'll get in front of experienced people who've already stated they're willing and able to mentor. On the flip side, you may have to fulfill additional commitments and you'll have less choice in who you end up with. 

4. Get out there (in person). Our guide to building your professional network will be handy. But, basically, be prepared to get out there – to events, lectures, markets, parties, whatever it might be. Look to strike up conversations and exchange contact details with those you find interesting. 

5. Get out there (online). As well as putting yourself out there face to face, maximize your online presence. Follow people whose opinions you value on social media and interact with relevant online communities. Move beyond traditional social networks to more curated online spaces, such as mentorship platforms Mentorsme and PushFar

6. Do some background research. Hopefully, by this point, a few potential mentors will have emerged. If they're someone you don't know personally, check out their online presence and experience to make sure they're a good fit for you. A bit of due diligence is always good; plus, it'll prepare you for a personalized approach.

7. Reach out. Get in touch through whatever medium seems most natural – whether that's email, social media or in person. Don't mention mentoring and keep the chat relatively informal. Make sure that your message is casual and personalized, and that you decide on key things, such as where to meet. 

8. Build the relationship. Come prepared for your first meeting with conversation topics and questions. That might be, for example, ‘I'm struggling with X part of being a founder, how did you deal with it?’ or ‘Where do you think our industry is heading?’ and so on. Think also about what you can offer them, and be vocal about it. At the very least, you should pay for their coffee. If you feel energized by them and find that conversation flows freely, ask to keep in touch. 

9. Evaluate and formalize. If you're still communicating with them after a few weeks or months, take a step back and evaluate how things are going. Are you gelling with this person? Have you actioned any of their advice? Do they make time for you? If all of these are a ‘yes’, it might be time to take things to the next level and see if the person is willing to create a formal structure for the relationship. 

Key takeaways 

• Running a business can be a lonely and difficult task – the right mentor can make a huge difference to your wellbeing and the work that you're doing. 

• Often mentors come from connections you already have – it's harder to start a relationship from scratch. 

• It's not as simple as hiring someone to do something for you. You should develop and maintain your mentor-mentee relationship organically, but do so in line with professional boundaries and values. 

Learn more 

Perspective. For wellbeing magazine Happiful, Pip Taverner, a leading yoga teacher and business mentor, explains why having a mentor is valuable

Example. Content strategist Siraad Dirshe was looking for a mentor, but couldn't find one through traditional routes. She writes for online women's magazine Refinery29 about making it work

Tool. In terms of mentorship schemes, SCORE and MicroMentor are good places to start. 

A version of this article was published in the Courier Workshop newsletter. For more deep dives into essential business concepts, sign up here.

You might like these, too