‘Get yourself a mentor!’ I bet most of you have heard this sentiment shared at one point or another during trying times in business or career. What always amazes me is the matter-of-fact way this is normally mentioned. When you get a chance to probe what precisely a mentoring relationship ought to look like, don’t be surprised to get a pair or two of blank stares. That’s the nature of buzzwords. Everyone throws them about but very few understand the process that one must follow to ensure a worthwhile mentoring relationship.

When I started my business, I was told at the first business incubation meeting that no business succeeds without mentors. I bought into this; after all business advisors who have been in the game for some time said it. What they failed to mention though is the importance of structuring the relationship in a business-like manner to make it mutually responsive for both parties. ‘If it is not structured, it’s not going to work.’

Before we get some structure, let’s define what mentorship is. In its simplest form, mentorship is a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable one. With this knowledge in mind, I went looking for a mentor and my criterion was simple: ‘experienced business owner who has made strides in the business world’. But guess what? The relationship never took off and I found it a tad bit contrived.

Over the duration of my business, I have formed relationships with various mentors; some time-bound, others more regular and yet others sporadic based on need. I have also taken on mentees; some didn’t work out while others flourished. I have settled that structure makes or breaks a mentor/mentee relationship.

Structure has been credited for the turnaround of Ford Motor Company when Allan Mulally, the former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) saved the company from bankruptcy. A structured approach to any intervention necessitates forward thinking. Without it, one is stuck in thinking in the now. Structure implies commitment and precision. And it is these two attributes that I found lacking in my previous relationships. I have, to my great dismay, found that lack of structure tends to be the norm in such relationships. Over the last two years, I have learnt that for a mentoring relationship to succeed, four elements need to be present.

1. Approach your potential mentor thoughtfully

Check the mentors’ track record with prior mentees to ensure that they have added value to others.

It also helps to have a specific request to approach them on and go there with a proposal on how you as the mentee hope to work with the mentor.

2. Have an agreement in place

For some reason we think it’s okay to have written agreements for all other interventions but not for mentoring, which is why, in my opinion, these relationships do not work to their full potential. You need clear guidelines on time, boundaries and work plans.

I have found that when you have it documented, both parties are held accountable to keep their end of the bargain. Most importantly, this enables you (and the mentor) to review the relationship periodically.

3. Understand your mentor beyond the surface

Just as we are always advised to understand what makes our bosses tick, the same principle applies to mentors. Know what works best with them; do they prefer email communication, are they best called in the morning etc?

Know what is important to them and how having you as a mentee is an added value to them.

4. You want the relationship, take charge of it

The assumption is you wanted to have a mentor for a specific reason to ensure that you fulfill your goal. Doing so, requires you take control of the relationship.

The mentor will not run after you, you need to do the running (until you’ve proven your value). Being timid will not get you anywhere neither will aggression. The trick is in striking a healthy balance.

When you approach a mentoring relationship in the same structured way you would coaching or training, you force yourself and your mentor to put priority to the union. When your needs are clear, the mentor knows exactly how they can support you.

The best part is both parties are accountable to each other, and with accountability comes measurement of impact and that is golden!

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