Advice:Getting the best from your mentor

By , published on 2nd May 2011

We all have mentors, even if we do not realise it.

For people in school, it might be a teacher who is willing to spend a little extra time with you. It could be a family friend who always has good advice and contacts. For those of you still in the corporate world, dreaming of starting your own business, it is the person who might actually be able to make that happen.

The ground rules for mentoring are simple: you must like your mentor and they must like you. If this is the case, they will spare you some of their valuable time, always the most precious currency.

You should make it fun and easy for your mentor. It will be fun if you do your preparation and later act on the advice, and it will be easy if you pick a time and place that suits them.

I have worked in numerous start-ups and in one I received some fundamental mentoring from our chairman, Sir Campbell Fraser. He had been Chairman of Dunlop and Director-General of the CBI.

First of all, he made me simplify my description of the complex software system we were trying to sell. What problems did it solve, and who might actually need, and thus buy, it? It took me an embarrassingly long time to get this description into a form that satisfied him — but of course he was completely right.

He then picked up the phone to someone in senior management at British Telecom, as BT Group was then known, and effectively got us our first order.

This is perhaps the best thing a mentor can do for a start-up — but be cautious. Mentors are understandably protective of their personal networks, and you should always take this into consideration before randomly asking to be connected.

In the corporate world, a good boss can be a mentor. He or she can advise you in your current work, but may also be prepared to discuss your new ideas, both in and outside the company. If you have an entrepreneurial idea, he or she can suggest that if it does not work out, you can always come back, better for having tried.

They might even suggest that the company be the first customer for your products, a win for both parties, which has bootstrapped many an earlystage entrepreneur.

I was discussing mentoring with René Carayol, the speaker and leadership expert, whose television credits include the series Pay Off Your Mortgage in Two Years. His business career has mostly been in large companies, and he still speaks fondly about his first break at Marks & Spencer, where his mentor was the group IT director.

This person is now retired, but René still meets him once a quarter. “I look forward to these meetings, with pleasure but also a touch of nerves,” he says. “My mentor pulls no punches. He’s direct and to the point, tough and explicit.”

Mentors will stop you making elementary mistakes, René points out. They will have contacts which may be worth more than their weight in gold, plus they will have insights into the flaws in your character that you will be able to address by putting together the right team. They are hugely valuable.

I felt some envy for René, as Sir Campbell passed away last year. I have not found anyone to replace his combination of razor-sharp worldliness and gentle, self-deprecating charm. Maybe I never will — right now, I take mentoring from a number of people on different topics.

I am finding this helpful in a new way: there is more than one way to get the best out of mentoring. But Campbell always said we were friends, and that is what the best mentors become.

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Mike Southon

About Mike Southon

Mike Southon is a Financial Times columnist, entrepreneur mentor, professional speaker and co-author of 'The Beermat Entrepreneur'. Mike's new book is: 'This is How Yoodoo It' - Sixty FT columns on entrepreneurship

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