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Maybe You Should Be a Mentor

August 15, 2014
By Mike Eitler

After mentoring entrepreneurs and innovators for several years through the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, I realized I had come by mentoring naturally, having benefited from three mentors myself, both personally and professionally. I was fortunate to have been exposed to such talented people early on, including one of my professors at Penn State who helped guide me through the job selection process and actually helped me manage the early years of my career; another who was a self-made, successful executive who was a born leader; and a third, a board chairman who shared his strategic vision and skills with me.

So with that behind me, you might say I almost had no choice when presented with the opportunity by the Innovation Center to pay it forward and give back to the community by serving as one of their mentors.  But it’s certainly not a one-way street.  I learn a lot about trends and the macro environment from the innovators and entrepreneurs I meet each time. 

If you’ll allow me to evangelize a little here, I’d like to share what those of us who have been there/done that can offer to earlier-stage folks (and that’s regardless of age – we see startup owners who are young as well as others who are looking at second or third careers).   First, we can share the real-life wisdom and perspective gained from our often hard-won experience.  Next, this sharing will help them develop their self-awareness in the sense that they’ll learn how to identify what they don’t know through exposure to processes that will help them manage the situations they encounter going forward.  And finally, we can provide access to contacts or information that will accelerate their development in their own business. 

I’ve been asked what it takes to be a good mentor and I can think of at least three qualities.  First is that the best mentors possess a deep set of skills gained through their experience that help them navigate the knowledge gap with their mentees.  Second, mentors must be prepared to offer assistance with both professional and personal development, but in a way that doesn’t cause them to disengage.  And finally, a mentor with a high degree of emotional intelligence can be of great assistance in guiding behaviors through the intellectual transfer of skills.

I’ve also learned, sometimes by trial and error, a few things not to do as a mentor.  For example, we need to resist the urge to do, rather than teach.  Failing to do this robs mentees of important learning opportunities and the ability to critique their own ideas and performance.  Even when the right way seems clear, we should lead them through the intellectual exercise of finding the right solution, sometimes by asking probing questions.

As for your time commitment, that’s up to you.  You’ll be able to see what it takes to be effective.  And you’ll often know you’re effective because they’ll tell you or you’ll see the improvement in their business performance.  But even if their business doesn’t make great strides and if all you gave was increased business knowledge with real world texture, you should consider yourself a success. 

Most of us had someone who gave us a boost and I hope you’ll consider becoming a mentor.  You may realize you get as much as you give.

Mike Eitler is President of Blue Lion Consulting, which provides consulting services to owners of small and mid-size businesses facing transitional events.  He is also Vice President of Spaulding Group (www.spauldinggroupinc), a provider of investment banking and related advisory services to middle market companies looking to buy, sell, recapitalize or grow their business.  You can reach him at Mike.Eitler@BlueLionConsulting.com.