Sage Advice US

How to make mentorship a part of your business strategy

Business coach Sherrin Ross Ingram shares why business advisement is important and what to look for in a mentor.

When you are starting a business, you can either do it the “hard way,” relying solely on your own experience (read: reinventing the wheel), or you can take the less painful route and get valuable insights from a mentor. Learning from someone else’s experience is usually a more enjoyable experience for you, because the right mentor for you will give you the tried-and-true lessons you need. That’s why it’s important to make mentorship an active part of your business strategy as you look to grow and expand in different aspects.

Do a gut check. The emphasis is on the right mentor for you. You should have that moment of clarity when you meet the right mentor, like ‘I didn’t think of that’. You should get the feeling that your mentor is expanding your perspective. If he or she is not doing that in every encounter, perhaps he or she isn’t the right one to take you to your next level of growth.

Have a peer group. This is important if you are a small business owner, not just one mentor.

In hindsight, there are a few things I would have done differently when I started my business and sought a mentor. In the beginning you are just happy to have anybody with any level of experience that is above your own. But, once you decide to become a little more strategic in your business, you may decide you need a different mentor for more specific aspects of your business. But you’ll still need a general specialist – someone who can give you overall guidance. Joining a peer group is almost like having several mentors at once. Everyone brings a different skillset to the table, and you’re the benefactor of each perspective.  

Paid business coach vs. Mentor. In the US, there is more of a trend for business coaching rather than mentoring. And I think in many ways it is a much better move. With a mentor, there is a degree of someone taking you under their wing and showing you the way, and no money changes hands.

However, with a coach or a peer group, your story is heard from start-to-finish, and they actually spend time helping you think through your decisions using insights from their successful backgrounds. A mentor would likely be more about offering a blueprint of sorts, which may or may not be the best for you.

Look for common ground. Try and get someone from the same background as yourself. I’ve always had a few mentors starting from my early days as a lawyer. When you’re first starting out at a large firm, you’re paired with a tenured lawyer, so I saw the value in that right away. But it wasn’t called mentorship in that respect – it was just meeting up and getting along as you travel similar paths. It was really as simple as that.

All the mentors I had from early on in my career were not from an African-American background, like myself, but were white men. So, while they could coach or mentor me on certain paths, they still did not get the full breadth of what it was like to be me.