Freelancers and other solopreneurs don’t have the luxury of performance reviews or built-in professional development opportunities. We have to take the initiative ourselves to grow our skills and advance our careers. However, cultivating relationships with business mentors can help you push through plateaus, identify new potential clients and otherwise grow your business.
That said, relying on a single business mentor for all your advice isn’t wise. For one thing, you don’t want to monopolize any one person’s time or become a pest to them. For another, that person may eventually need to shift focus elsewhere (family obligations, health concerns, their own career needs), and you won’t want to be left high and dry.
That’s why Harvard Business Review recommends creating a personal board of directors rather focusing on one mentor. This is a group of people whose skills and expertise complement each other and whom you call on for advice. That approach also exposes you to different points of view, and perhaps opinions that might be contradictory at times. But gaining a broader perspective on your business and career issues can help you find the approach that makes the most sense for you rather than simply maintaining the status quo.
Here’s how to get started on finding and cultivating relationships with mentors.
1. How to Identify Amazing Business Mentors
Keep an eye out for people whose work you admire, even if their focus isn’t exactly the same as yours. In fact, having a few mentors whose work doesn’t overlap with yours can be an asset because they won’t see you as a threat and they’ll offer a different approach to business. After all, the fundamentals of cash flow or building client relationships are the same across industries.
Some professional organizations have formal mentoring programs where they’ll pair an early or mid-career member with someone more senior. If you belong to a group that doesn’t have a formal mentoring program, you can still reach out to other members on your own to seek out their advice. Sometimes peers can serve as good mentors or sounding boards, too, because they understand the challenges at your stage of business.
The ease of communicating via skype, FaceTime and Google Hangouts means you aren’t limited to people in your city. Another Harvard Business Review story covers the benefits of virtual mentors, where you learn from someone without actually interacting in real life.
Whether virtual on in-person, Inc. Magazine says the traits of a good mentor include honesty with diplomacy, compassion and ability to listen.
2. The Right Way to Approach Business Mentors
Before you approach potential mentors, do your due diligence so that you can customize your message to them. Without getting too detailed and coming off as creepy, mention a specific project you admire or that time you saw them present at a conference and what you liked about their remarks. Potential mentors are much more likely to respond to a personalized message and a few genuine words of admiration versus a generic email blast without much thought.
Successful people are often busy, so keep your message brief and specify the kind of help you need. Rather than a vague ask like “may I pick your brain?,” say “do you have 15 minutes to discuss _____?” Then make it clear that you’re willing to meet at the time and place that’s most convenient for them. You could even offer to bring offer right to them if they’re really pressed for time. You may get more than 15 minutes, but this approach shows you respect their time.
Once you get in front of a mentor, either in person or online, don’t ask questions that you could easily Google (for instance, “What’s a Schedule C?” or “How do I set up a Facebook business page?”). Good mentors have knowledge that goes beyond the basics, so get the most out of that relationship by learning the basics on your own and asking higher-level questions where they can really add value.
3. Maintain Your Relationship with Your Business Mentor
Once you hit it off with a mentor, send brief periodic updates on your progress to express your gratitude and so they can see the impact of their advice. Some mentees suck up a mentor’s time and then never follow through on their advice to contact this person or learn that skill, which can feel like a waste of the mentor’s time. Don’t be that person! You don’t have to follow all of their advice, but if you find that most of it doesn’t resonate with you, then they may not be the right mentor, at least not right now.
Also offer to help your mentor as appropriate. In fact, reverse mentoring is a type of mentoring where the younger worker helps the more experienced worker learn new technology or understand current trends. Mentoring should be mutually beneficial, so as you read articles that might interest your mentor or discover that your mentor really wants to learn Instagram, those are opportunities for you to add value and return the favor.
Your mentors or the people in your personal board of directors will likely evolve over time, but seeking their advice ensures that your business doesn’t stagnate and helps you avoid some of the mistakes they may have made themselves.
Related: More Leadership Advice
About the Author: Freelance journalist Susan Johnston Taylor covers entrepreneurship, small business and lifestyle for publications including The Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur and FastCompany.com. Follow her on Twitter@UrbanMuseWriter.
This is an archived post from the FreshBooks Blog and was originally published in July 2011.