One of the reason a mentor is so helpful to your business is that they've been there, done that, and got the t-shirt. However, mentors were once nervously starting out as new founders too. Virgin StartUp mentor Lisa Tennant is an entrepreneur and a non-executive Director. She founded her own startup digitally disrupting the publishing industry, and since selling it she’s been advising SMEs on digital. Here are three things she wishes she had known about mentoring in the earlier days of her career.

3 things I wish I'd known about mentoring when I started up - Lisa Tennant

1. They might not look like you expect

Growing up in a former coal mining community, life was more about survival than ambition. I’d never even heard the term mentor. Motivated by his own childhood poverty, my father took a huge risk leaving his job and setting up a business when I was a child, and he did it without mentors. When it was time for me to set up my own business, I followed his lead – and did it without mentors. Or so I thought.

It’s only in recent years since my father died I realised he was the best mentor I ever had. He just didn’t fit the idea I had in my head of what a mentor is - some kind of super successful global entrepreneur multi-millionaire with a bestselling book (sound familiar Mr Branson?!).  Have a look around – do you already have people in your life who can be a mentor to you if you widen your definition?

2. Your mentors don’t have to be ‘real life’

As my business began to grow, I soon exhausted the limits of my father’s skills and knowledge (and patience). Living so rurally, I had limited networks and little access to potential mentors - but I didn’t realise there were hundreds of mentors right under my nose. This was when my addiction to learning from the experience of other people through books really kicked in. What better way to speed up the development of your business than taking in the wisdom of those who’ve already been on the journey? The kind of authors who will help will depend on your business and personal preferences but I’ve not met an entrepreneur yet who didn’t benefit from these:

The E-myth Revisited (Michael Gerber) - how to work ON your business and not just IN it. 
The 80/20 Principle (Richard Koch) - how target your resources to get the best results. 
The One Thing (Gary Keller) - to help you take 80/20 even further. 
Poor Charlie’s Almanack (Charlie Munger) - a fat book of wisdom from Warren Buffett’s sidekick on how to make the best decisions and combat biases in your thinking.
Tools of Titans (Tim Ferriss) - for so much condensed wisdom from so many amazing people that you can’t fail to get value from it.  
Getting Things Done (Dave Allen) - a method for managing your time and tasks that REALLY works.
7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Stephen Covey) - develop great underpinning habits. 

These books aren’t about super sexy startups – you can find lots of those elsewhere if that’s your bag. They’re about having rock solid foundations for whatever you build and give you a backbone of behaviours and methods to get the best out of yourself. They’ll bring as much value to your personal life as your business. Top these up with reading about your industry and your specific business issues, and you’ve got a winning formula.  

Since having children I don’t have as much time to read, but I now make use of podcasts, audio books and blogs. If you only have time for one, listen to the Tim Ferriss podcast. You can’t fail to learn something with every episode that’ll help you in your business and personal life.

3. Being a good mentee is a skill

Fast forward a few years, and I finally found my first real life mentor. I’m sorry to say I wasted the opportunity as I wasn’t a good mentee. No one had ever told me that being a good mentee is a skill. So what does it take to be a great mentee? 

The most important thing is to know what you want from your mentor. What value can they add to you? A shoulder to cry on? A functional expert? Someone with the networks you need? Someone who’s trodden the path before you? Someone whose thinking you admire? Someone who has the vibe you want? I was too scared to ask my mentor directly for what I needed from him and as a result the relationship stalled as I flip-flopped around, unsure of which direction to go in.

The second thing is to do what you say you will – turn up to meetings, put the work in, implement advice, agree actions and deliver them. At one point my mentor arranged a meeting for me with a useful contact and I turned up late – another damaging blow to the relationship. There’s nothing more demotivating to a mentor than a mentee who doesn’t show respect for the mentor’s time and effort. 

And finally, try to add some value for your mentor. In my head, my mentor was there to help ME, and what I didn’t yet know was that mentorship isn’t a one-way street. How can you help your mentor too? Can you connect them to someone in your network? Can you give them a new perspective on a problem? Can you send them a relevant article? A mentor who feels that you’re adding value to them too is much more likely to go out of their way to help you.

Learn from my mistakes. Widen your definition of who a mentor is, find the right mentors for you and where you’re at and be a good mentee. Don’t forget that as you and your business grow you’ll need to review your mentorship needs. Above all, don’t try to go it alone. Get yourself a great mentor as soon as you can – they’re the accelerant for your entrepreneurial fire.

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