The typical business entrepreneur lives in the world of “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” It’s part of a an entrepreneur’s DNA to actively seek opportunity, authority, and responsibility. But where there is opportunity, there is often high risk that goes with it. And being the proverbial Lone Ranger on an “island” is not for the faint of heart, nor is it a good business practice. In fact, it’s the fastest route to frustration and mistakes…and sometimes catastrophic failure.
So, welcome to the world of “It’s lonely at the top”! But it does not have to be that way. Who can you turn to when the only person you have ever turned to is yourself? Certainly you can reach out to family members and friends, which may provide some solace as a result of their desire to listen and empathize. But this informal network may not be enough, particularly because they may not have the objective perspective or the business acumen you need to help navigate through challenging times.
Bringing on a business partner may help because it creates a more formal relationship and operational structure to your business, but it comes with significant investment and some added risk to you.
There is another, more reasonable and time-tested choice: Find a great mentor. Finding the right person for you and your company will take effort on your part. Mentors can fall under the label of business coach, consultant, retired executive, professional colleague, or strategic partner. This list is not exhaustive enough to rule out your favorite uncle who just seems to be able to ask all the right questions and weaves a great deal of commonsense into his remarks. But, whatever their current or former affiliation, great mentors all have certain traits in common.
Traditionally speaking, mentors most often are professionally accomplished people, with very a respectful level of knowledge and experience. This specifically includes experience in a direct or supportive role in managing people and guiding them along a career trajectory that benefits the individual and the work they do.
There are also specific traits that great mentors have which build a foundation of trust and contribute to effective mentoring rigor. These traits become the crucible by which all great mentors are evaluated.
First among kings is credibility. Before a person can enter the role of a mentor, there must exist a very high level of credibility. No one is going to pay much attention to someone who lacks this fundamental trait. And, at its core, it is particularly important to look for a mentor familiar enough with your industry and area of work. Credibility also comes about by way of street-smart experience, industry understanding, or a history of proven results. And, a mentor who invests significant time in active learning, developing professional relationships, or attending instructive programs and events is far more likely to have greater level of valuable curiosity and insight.
The second important trait is integrity. Nothing forms the bond of trust and respect between a mentor and a mentee more than the mentor’s ability to speak with great clarity and act with great conviction. After all, as a business leader, virtually everything that comes at you is filtered information or there’s an “agenda” attached to it. The mentor’s ability to understand the big picture, think critically, and be totally honest with an assessment or feedback on the mentee’s situation is paramount for the success of the relationship. And honesty does not have to come with a sharp whip to it, either. As Aristotle once said, “Honesty without compassion is brutality.”
A third trait shared by great mentors is perspective. This is the ability of a mentor to see the world as it really is, without the emotion and distraction that often perplexes anybody caught in a problematic circumstance. When problems arise, particularly when a situation evolves into a crisis, the human brain often shifts into a protection mode that narrows a person’s point of view and command of a situation. This creates a reactionary response that may not be well thought out. Or, worse yet, people may freeze into inaction. In this circumstance, it is the mentor’s ability to competently grasp what matters most right now and help the mentee re-gain focus and direction.
This paves the way to the fourth trait, which is setting stretch goals. Intuitively, we understand the need for goals and objectives in work or in life. Without them, we end up wandering and wasting our energies. As such, it becomes incumbent upon a mentor to help the mentee not only gain focus on what is important now, but also comprehend what needs to be accomplished going forward. Sometimes this means initiating incremental steps towards a larger goal. Other times it means taking a “moon shot,” where risk and reward become may become dangerously incompatible. Whatever the magnitude of a stretch goal, the underlying result should always provide meaning to the mentee by gaining experience, by developing a new skill, or by building confidence.
The symbiotic relationship between a mentor and a mentee is one that grows and matures over time, if developed properly from the start. This means that both the mentor and the mentee must continuously work at nurturing the relationship and following through on things that matter most. If done right, both parties win. The mentee benefits by developing and improving as a business leader. The mentor benefits by keeping interpersonal skills sharp and expanding upon a universe of knowledge.