Monday, March 11, 2013

The Importance of Mentorships

If you run a business of one, you must be the rainmaker, the finance department, the personnel department, the technology department, the chief marketer, the electrician, the coffee guy, and the copy guy. If you work in a large business, you tend to be a number and can get lost in the shuffle. But if you work in a midsize business, you have the time to be a mentor and the ability to make a genuine difference in someone else’s professional life.

In the words of John Crosby: “Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.”

If you think back through your years of business experience, between all the completed projects, countless meetings, highs, and lows, you have to admit that there is something about your business that you enjoy. There is some aspect of business for which you are considered an expert. This is why your employees respect you and are advocates for your brand. So, consider the value that a newbie, someone just starting out in business, would place on some in-depth conversations with you over coffee.

As a mentor, you could meet for 30-minutes every couple of weeks or an hour a month. Your mentee (the person who is being mentored) would create an agenda, a list of questions, and key objectives for the mentorship. You would be the sounding board, the idea man (or woman), and a voice of reason with a dose or two of reality. You would share your experiences, what went wrong, and what went right as you built your business, expanded, co-branded, acquired other businesses, sold businesses, etc. You would listen to questions and give advice about how to anticipate and navigate demographic and market shifts. Your insights would help the mentee become a better planner, and in the process, create a more stable business.

Imagine if you had a mentor in your early days. If you run a technology company, what would you have asked Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), or Ginni Rometty (IBM) if any of them had been your mentors? If you run a household goods and d├ęcor company, what would you have asked Martha Stewart? And if you run a furniture company, what would you have asked Ingvar Kamprad (IKEA)? Sure, these are all big names from industry leading companies, but the reality is, all leaders have much to contribute to start-ups. The truth is, sometimes, what we consider simple tasks (for example, writing job descriptions, writing marketing plans, analyzing revenue spreadsheets, and creating sales forecasts) can be huge stumbling blocks for new business owners.

I met Eric Jacobson several years ago when we served as committee members for an international mentoring group. Eric has more than a quarter-century of experience in successfully leading employees and teams through times of revenue growth, new product development, change, integration, and re-engineering. His passion is helping individuals to become effective leaders at work, within organizations, and wherever they are called upon to lead and inspire. Eric shares his insights on management and leadership on his blog at Without knowing it, Eric serves as a mentor to all who work with him.

When I asked Eric to explain the value of mentoring in a nutshell, he said, “Mentoring can be very rewarding for the mentor. Each time I’ve mentored someone, I’ve learned something from my mentee. Often, it’s learning about a business that I didn’t know much about previously. Sometimes, it’s from hearing the questions the mentee asks that provide me with ideas about how to be clearer in my sharing of information for future mentoring experiences. Mentoring has also made me a stronger leader by teaching me how to be even more receptive for the next times I find myself in a mentee role.”

So, are you ready to become a mentor? If you need help in finding people to mentor, the first step is to look outside your door. Many of your employees want mentors. But don’t stop there. Check out local chambers of commerce and online business groups. You’ll be glad you paid it forward – and you never know, you just might discover the next Mark Zuckerberg.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

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