Look for the right mentor for your small business mentor or new venture

In my last post, I outlined some ideas and issues to consider when trying to decide whether and what kind of mentor(s) might be valuable to your small business or new venture. Of course, once you’re convinced that your business could benefit from mentoring, you need to find a good mentor.  To that end, based on my experiences as a mentor and observation of others, here are some thoughts on what it takes to be a good mentor.

• The right relationship – The prospective mentor and mentee should consider whether there is good interpersonal fit. Is there mutual respect? A great mentor for one company will not be effective at another where the mentor’s personality clashes unproductively with the leadership or respect is lacking.

If a new mentor will be joining an existing group that meets together as a sort of brain trust, take care to consider group dynamics. Try an introductory meeting or short trial period. If the relationship is primarily one-on-one, the connection between mentor and mentee will be the deciding factor.

One key aspect of fit is the mentee’s openness to critical input from the prospective mentor. While most of us struggle to hear constructive criticism, it can be especially difficult coming from close friends or family members. So while a business owner might trust her brother, an investment banker, with her life and respect his business judgment above all others, if she can’t hear his input constructively, he is not the right mentor for her business.

In addition, practical bumps in the road to fit can inhibit effective mentoring, such as lack of proximity, comfort with advanced communications technologies, availability, and conflicts of interest.

• The right communications style – A good mentor needs to be able to express new – sometimes difficult or uncomfortable – ideas so that they can be heard and considered. Some mentors can do this with low key questioning, others may be confrontational, and still others can do both depending on the situation. No matter how simpatico the mentor and business owners are in other ways, a mentor whose communications style does not promote meaningful discussion will be of limited value.

• The right capabilities – This is highly dependent on what the mentee business needs and seeks. Does a small business need someone with deep experience in a new market it will soon enter? Perhaps a new venture start-up team needs someone who has experience leading a venture in the midst of early exponential growth.

Notwithstanding the right expertise and experience on paper, a mentor must be able to generate helpful ideas and feedback. Even when a prospective mentee is convinced that a mentor has the needed expertise or experience, a good mentor may want to assess the situation independently or take on the relationship on a trial basis to allow for a graceful parting if things don’t work out. No matter how good the mentor-mentee fit in other ways, a good mentor will not take on or continue mentoring if a significant gap is found between mentor capabilities and mentee needs.

• The right motivation – Few (if any) mentors act out of altruism. Aside from compensation for mentoring, a good mentor will be transparent about other motivations or interests that may come into play. For example, A new venture may ask a potential investor to mentor in the hopes that it will lead to funding, while the mentor is motivated by learning more about a potential investment. Both are self-interested and the interests are aligned, at least for the moment.

In any case, a mentor’s interests should not be in conflict with the mentee’s. Openness about motives and boundaries to minimize conflicts can help to prevent or manage difficult points. No matter what her motivation is, a good mentor will be clear about her own interests and will recuse herself should a potential conflict arise.

• The right values – Unless the mentee seeks help with a fundamental change, it is essential that the values of the mentor and mentee align. For example, an ethically motivated vegetarian would be hard pressed to effectively mentor a butcher shop unless it were in the midst of transforming itself into a fruit and vegetable market. No matter how good the fit in other ways, a good mentor will be comfortable with the mentee’s values.

• The right mental toughness – A good mentor needs to make sure that the mentee considers options and alternatives while respecting the mentee as decision maker. Even in the midst of a highly productive mentor-mentee relationship, this can be a struggle. It is all too easy to relax into automatic agreement even when you are supposed to be the official devil’s advocate.

At times I have felt uncomfortable about a mentee’s decision but satisfied that alternatives received reasonable consideration, which I hope is a sign that I have struck a good balance. And while it can place a short-term strain on the relationship, it can also be a time when a mentor adds the greatest value. No matter how awkward, a good mentor should have the mental toughness to insist on fulfilling the role.

Of course, each individual small business or new venture mentor must work out the issues discussed here and in last month’s post. As with other types of business relationships, doing this heavy lifting up front can yield benefits, including greater value all around.


Karen Utgoff, principal of Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting, is a market-oriented business strategist based in Amherst, MA. Learn more at http://www.utgoff.com.

© Karen Lauter Utgoff Consulting 2012. All rights reserved.


  1. Trish says:

    his is a VERY good post and covers a number of tricky areas (family members, communication style, transparency etc.) In fact I'd say this is a great staple article for anyone looking to start a business.
    Everyone needs a mentor – even if they don't realize it. I'd say a lot of the factors you cite could be very helpful to be aware of if someone is hesitating to wade into that kind of relationship.
    Thank you!

  2. Karen Utgoff says:

    Thanks Trish.

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