Mentoring to Unlock Your Entrepreneurial Potential

Guest Blog by Valentina Lorenzon

Over the last couple of years, the business environment has considerably changed and the COVID pandemic has accelerated many processes that were already underway but would probably have taken longer to be implemented under normal circumstances. During this period of crisis and transformation, the headlines have been dominated by business closures, but the other side of the coin has been characterised by a considerable number of new beginnings. According to statistics published by Companies House, the number of incorporations in the first quarter of 2021 represented the highest quarter year-on-year increase since 2012, when quarterly breakdowns were first recorded.

Behind the decision to start a business there are a variety of reasons from the need to respond to new customer’s preferences to the decision of changing lifestyle or finally pursuing a passion project. As someone who has grown up in a family business, I am deeply convinced that entrepreneurship is a highly-satisfying, positively-challenging adventure that can help us reach our full potential. However, it can also be a lonely place where we feel like we are the only one facing certain issues.

Why is mentorship key for entrepreneurial success?

At every stage of a company’s lifecycle, an entrepreneur needs new skills to face the set of unique challenges that characterise the work of a business owner. This requires continuous learning and development, ideally from a varied range of different sources. Among them, counting on the support of a trusted mentor can be an extremely useful opportunity to share knowledge, exchange notes on common experiences and receive real-world advice on specific issues. To do better and develop as entrepreneurs, it is essential to speak with someone that we can relate to and, at the same time, is able to challenge our choices and question our assumptions. 

There are multiple opinions about what makes a good mentee-mentor relationship but in practice the nature of the exchange can vary enormously depending on each individual’s needs and the type of bond they build together. What is certain is that a mentor can provide invaluable support not only with the running of your business but also with your personal development as an entrepreneur. The mentor’s role may involve a variety of aspects including developing technical competences, acting as a sounding board, and providing an objective, external perspective as well as making relevant introductions and helping with networking opportunities. Even more importantly for the development of entrepreneurial and leadership skills, a mentor can provide emotional encouragement, help you build confidence and find your motivation and drive to succeed. 

Don’t look for a single mentor, create a support network instead.

We often discuss what makes a good mentor and how we should go about selecting someone who matches our specific needs. The truth is that looking for a single mentor could turn out to be a very limiting solution. As entrepreneurs, we face every day a multiplicity of opportunities, challenges, and decisions that we may not be fully prepared for. These decisions require a wide range of different skills and competences that can only be developed through first-hand experience and the exposure to a variety of role models and inspirational peers. 

It is safe to say that it is highly unlikely to find someone who has the breadth of knowledge and depth of expertise required to have all the answers to your questions. This is why you should deliberately seek more than one mentor and identify professionals with different specialties that could support you with specific aspects of your business. You probably will not call on all of them at the same time, but they will become part of a support network and will help you with their unique experience. 

One of the benefits of this approach is that it is really valuable to hear the opinion and advice of multiple experts, especially when it comes to particularly complex issues that may need truly innovative solutions. These insights will inform your decisions and will help you develop your own leadership style and the right mindset to face future challenges as well. 

How do you choose your mentors?

Traditionally, when selecting a mentor, there has been a tendency to choose someone who is very similar to us, with a shared background and, in most cases, a significantly higher level of seniority. Even though this may certainly still be an appropriate solution in certain contexts, I would suggest moving beyond the set rules and assumptions that we might usually follow and consider instead a wider and more diverse pool of potential mentors. There are multiple reasons for this, but the two key ones are related to the fact that we are now operating in a VUCA world - characterised by high levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – and the skills we require can become obsolete much more quickly than ever before. 

This means that we could really benefit from being exposed to mentors from different sectors and backgrounds and with different ways of thinking from ours because it could lead to a process of cross-pollination of ideas and, as a result, provide truly useful insights. Similarly, due to the rapid changes in our business environment, there is a lot of value in having mentors at different stages of their careers: in certain circumstances we may relate more to someone who is only a couple of years ahead of us in the entrepreneurial journey than from an experienced, serial entrepreneur. Ideally, you should give yourself the opportunity to learn from both. 

In other words, you should look up at more experienced entrepreneurs (traditional mentoring) but also look around among your peers (peer mentoring) and, in some cases even look down at less experienced individuals that may have valuable knowledge or insights on a topic (reverse mentoring). These interactions may be more or less formal depending on the relationship you have with each individual, but the key thing is that they are trust-based and mutually valuable. 

Digital mentoring in a post-pandemic world.

The changes imposed by the post-pandemic “new normal” have significantly increased the opportunities at our disposal to tap into a wider pool of mentors. In a world where in-person interactions were simply impossible, we all resorted to digital channels in order to connect and communicate with other people and, as a result, we all became more open to the idea of collaborating with people that we have never physically met. When it comes to mentoring this means that we can access people that are geographically and experientially far away from our immediate circle of contacts but may have the knowledge and insights that we need to widen our perspective. 

Never hesitate to reach out to people. As long as your message is respectful and appropriate, the only risk is to get a no, but you would be surprised by the amount of people who are willing to share their experience. Another advantage of digital mentoring is that you might get to talk to people who may be too busy to meet up in person or might look too unreachable “in the real world”. And even if you are not able to connect directly with the mentor you wanted you are still able to follow them on digital platforms like LinkedIn and learn from them though observation and reflection on how they communicate and interact. 

Develop the right mindset and go about it strategically!

In conclusion, mentoring can be a very rewarding opportunity for both parties involved and can have a positive impact on you as an entrepreneur as well as your business. However, to fully benefit from it, I would encourage you to shift your mindset towards a wider definition of mentoring and its role in an entrepreneurial context. The key points to remember are:

. Develop a support network. There is no reason why you should only have one mentor, seek out different people with a unique set of skills and expertise who will be able to help you with specific challenges. Over time, you will need a different type of support to face new scenarios.

. Look for diverse advice. Explore and experiment with different forms of mentoring and consider individuals who are not necessarily part of your immediate circle of contacts. 

. Be proactive and strategic.

In the end, you are ultimately responsible for building valuable mentoring relationships so play an active role in engaging with people, networking on- and offline and make a deliberate choice to engage with individuals based on your strategic objectives and specific challenges. Not all mentoring relationships will necessarily be successful, but you will never know until you try - and there is still a lot to be learned from each experience.