How to Find the Small Business Mentor You Need

SmallBizChat on TwitterEvery week as SmallBizLady, I conduct interviews with experts on my Twitter talk show #SmallBizChat. The show takes place every Wednesday on Twitter from 8-9 pm ET. This is excerpted from my recent interview with @DorieClark.  Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant and frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review and Forbes. Recognized as a “branding expert” by the Associated Press and Fortune, she is the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013), which is being translated into Chinese, French, Polish, and Thai. For more info, visit

SmallBizLady:  What kind of person might make a good mentor for me?

Dorie Clark:  Mentors are great at providing feedback and guidance that can help enhance your performance and save you from making mistakes. Think about what you hope to learn or the skills you’d like to develop. Perhaps you want to get better at managing your employees, or navigating social media, or communicating eloquently. Who are the people you know who have those skills, and whom you also admire and respect? They might be good mentor prospects.

SmallBizLady:  How do I turn a prospective mentor into a mentor?

Dorie Clark:  You have to cultivate a relationship with potential mentors over time. Just as it isn’t appropriate to ask someone to marry you on the first date, you need to get to know someone before determining whether they’re a good fit as a mentor (i.e., you respect their advice, you share similar values, and you feel like they have your best interest at heart). The key is to get to know them by interacting with them repeatedly: try to volunteer for a committee where you can work closely with them, or suggest a breakfast meeting so you can get to know each other better. Before someone becomes your mentor, you have to develop a comfortable, positive relationship.

SmallBizLady:  Why does it seem so hard to find a mentor?

Dorie Clark:  As Harvard Business School Professor Tom DeLong told me in an interview, the economic pressures of the past 20 years have dramatically cut down on mentoring – both inside and outside organizations. Because top leaders are increasingly relied upon as rainmakers, they simply don’t have time to do “non-essential” things. Unfortunately, that often includes helping others as mentors. The secret to overcoming this is finding ways to draw mentors to you, so that they truly want to help you and interact with you.

SmallBizLady:  How can I draw potential mentors to me?

Dorie Clark:  If you are perceived as someone with a strong reputation and personal brand, someone who is loyal, and someone who will always have your mentor’s back (supporting them in person and talking them up online), that makes you a very desirable person for senior leaders and colleagues to want to help. The Center for Talent Innovation has written very intelligently about this (and the cultivation of sponsors, i.e., mentors on steroids).

SmallBizLady:  What if it seems like the best possible mentors are actually my competitors?

Dorie Clark:  It’s natural to think that the people who can best understand you are in your field. But you don’t have to be limited to that. You’re probably never going to get a direct competitor to mentor you. But what about people in the same field, but in a different, non-competing geographical region? Or someone who’s retired from the industry? And don’t discount the value of mentors from other fields; many skills, from finance to marketing, are highly transferable and the perspective of outsiders can be helpful.

SmallBizLady:  Should I consider having more than one mentor?

Dorie Clark:  It’s a great idea to cultivate multiple mentors. In fact, as I’ve written about in my book Reinventing You, it’s helpful to create your own “mentor board of directors,” in which you tap colleagues you respect to advise you on certain areas in which they have expertise. This is useful because it’s hard to find one perfect mentor who knows everything. Instead, you can turn to people (even peers or subordinates) who have particular skills you admire (Mike is great at networking, Rohit is a whiz on Twitter, and Amy is an excellent listener).

SmallBizLady:  How do I make the most of the mentor relationship?

Dorie Clark:  It’s useful to think of your time with your mentor as “developing your own curriculum.” Don’t just sit back and wait for them to impart knowledge. Instead, come up with a list of questions to ask them. Develop ideas or theories and talk them through with your mentor. They won’t necessarily know how best to help you unless you ask specific, targeted questions.

SmallBizLady:  Is there a way to develop a “mentor” relationship with people I don’t know?

Dorie Clark:  In addition to your real-world “mentor board of directors,” you can also have your own group of “honorary mentors.” Pick great figures you admire from history and dive into their biographies. Whether it’s Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Marie Curie, or Eleanor Roosevelt, you can learn a great deal from how they thought about life and work.

SmallBizLady:  How do I ask someone to be my mentor?

Dorie Clark:  You want to be sure your request doesn’t scare your mentor into thinking you want to take up a lot of their time; they’re probably already a very busy person. You want to be very clear about your request and expectations. “Will you be my mentor?” can sound overwhelming. “Would you be willing to meet with me every six months and offer me career advice?” sounds a lot more manageable.

SmallBizLady:  How often should I keep in touch with my mentors?

Dorie Clark:  You want to strike a balance between two poles – on one hand, calling them every week to ask their advice will probably overwhelm them, and on the other, if you only see them once a year, they may lose their connection to you. Think about what’s appropriate in your circumstances; if you work in the same building, monthly coffee might be appropriate, while if you’re on different continents, maybe a quarterly Skype call is a better idea.

SmallBizLady:  What are the ways I can give back to my mentors?

Dorie Clark:  Many people act like mentoring is a one-way relationship – but it shouldn’t be. Think hard about what you can give back to your mentor. At the simplest level, always say thanks for their assistance and treat them to meals when you get together. Always be loyal to your mentor and “talk them up,” and you can also think of other gestures that might be meaningful. For example, you might volunteer to raise money for their favorite charity.

SmallBizLady:  What’s the first thing I should do to get started on building my mentor network?

Dorie Clark:  Start by writing a list of 5-10 people you think might be good potential members of your “mentor board of directors.” What skills do they have that you admire? What might you hope to learn from them? How can you get to know each of them better? Make a schedule and invite them out so you can deepen the relationship and validate whether they might be a good contender. And start thinking now about what value you could give back to them.

If you found this interview helpful, join us on Wednesdays 8-9 pm ET; follow @SmallBizChat on Twitter. Here’s how to participate in #SmallBizChat:

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Melinda F. Emerson, known to many as SmallBizLady is America’s #1 small business expert. As CEO of Quintessence Multimedia, Melinda educates entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 companies on subjects including small business start-up, business development and social media marketing to fulfill her mission to end small business failure. She writes a weekly column on social media for The New York Times. Forbes Magazine named her #1 woman for entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter. She hosts #SmallBizChat Wednesdays on Twitter 8-9pm ET for emerging entrepreneurs. She also publishes a resource blog Melinda is also the bestselling author of Become Your Own Boss in 12 months; A Month-by-Month Guide to a Business That Works and the ebook: How To Become A Social Media Ninja; 101 Ways to Dominate Your Competition Online.

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