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If Your Mentor's Only Tool is a Hammer, You'd Better be a Nail!

What is a mentor?Advisors, mentors and business coaches, call them what you will, typically, give you a snapshot of their advice/focus in the books, blogs and articles that they write. With many of them, though, you get the feeling that every entrepreneur is in the Silicon Valley and every start-up is a high tech company.  And, of course, all of them will eventually be funded by a well-known venture capital firm.

Hey, is that you. Can you relate?  I didn't think so.

There are others that tout processes like Six Sigma or transformational strategies. Still others talk of empowerment and authenticity and dozens of other buzzwords that sound impressive, but either have detailed processes behind them that will choke a small business or are gossamer-like "feel good" dictums that evoke Kumbaya. Many are like religious zealots, many former big company folks, trying to make small companies act like big ones. While I ascribe to and support many of these critical processes, few have ever successfully applied these principles, in a streamlined way, to entrepreneurial endeavors.

Finally, there are those who focus on helping you plan, and are not only nowhere to be found when it comes time for execution, but wouldn't know how to begin to advise you about it. They are planners. In their experience, somebody else was always responsible for the execution, so they may or may not develop a plan that is executable.

I know I'm painting with a large brush, here, and this is not to say that there are not some really good advisors out there. But, I object to folks who have "the answer!" A "one size fits all" remedy for entrepreneurs and small business owners that will forever change their business. No such thing. A mentor or advisor has to fit a small business and its entrepreneur owner like a good running shoe fits your foot. It gets you where you want to go, with support, and doesn't give you blisters! But there are dozens of different manufacturers and hundreds of styles. One of them will fit you specifically!

I've written multiple posts about how to find a mentor and how to best use a mentor, but for this one, let's focus solely on what is a mentor and what you should look for (and avoid) to get the maximum results (another post). So, to find your "right fit," here are some guidelines and mentor questions to ask:

Mentor questions you need to ask: Interview them as if they were going to be an employee.

Don't engage them based on their reputation or presentation, alone. Ask them hard questions (like "what would you do if") and see if they can answer them crisply and without jargon. (Beware if they speak "consultant-ese," the language of the tribe of big fees and empty suits.)  A must ask mentor question is what is their fee structure (you wouldn't hire an employee where you didn't know salary history). See if they ever structure a portion of their fees based on success (then you know their confidence in their work). Before you ask for references, ask them to describe a similar project to what you need. Then, if you like their description, ask to talk to that former client (this will flush out whether they are just telling you what you want to hear).

Specific expertise/experience.

They should have expertise/experience either in your industry sector, your type of business, or your specific issue(s) like sales, production, etc. If they don't have at least one of these, no matter how good they might appear, they might have a learning curve to come up that you end up paying for either in time or dollars, or both. The more relevant expertise/experience they have, the better they will be able to relate and use their experience in understanding your issues and deriving more nuanced solutions.

Have they ever had to make a payroll?

This is not to say that if you haven't done it you can't provide advice about it. But, given the choice, experience trumps theory every day. It means they've been an entrepreneur and founded or managed (or at least worked in at a high level) a small business and can, absolutely, relate to some of things you're going through or will be facing, including the risks taken. This will enhance their ability to assess your situation and come up with practical solutions. If their work experience or their consulting experience is primarily with large companies, their solutions might end up being either too general or too complex for you to implement.

Coach vs. Advisor

I joke with people that if you call me a coach, you better have a bat in your hand, referencing a long avocation where I coached baseball at every amateur level, including many AAU and American Legion teams.  While I have always used the coach metaphor as my operating style as a CEO, it is a title that has come into some misuse in business. Coaching, at its fundamental base, is teaching; it isn't cheerleading. It isn't being a friend. It's being a mentor. Too many coaches, not enough advisors. Too few teachers, too many zealots! Find a mentor whom you feel can teach you to be a better entrepreneur and business manager; one from who you can really learn (at least something more than how to frame your criticism with employees).

Selecting a good advisor, one who will help you develop solutions to your problems and one from whom you can grow, is not an easy task. Hopefully, the guidelines I've provided will assist you. And beware of the tool box with too few tools!

"The Entrepreneur's Yoda" knows these things. He's been there. May success be with you!

What's been your experience with mentors, advisors or coaches? Include how it worked out for you in your comments. It will help other entrepreneurs!

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