Author: Jeremy Vickers
Category: Blog

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Mentorship is an oft-overlooked asset in the entrepreneur’s toolkit. Mentors are often utilized as key building blocks of an entrepreneurial ecosystem that can enhance and expand the knowledge transfer and capacity of early-stage and growing entrepreneurs.

My Experience with Mentors
Professionally speaking, I can look back on my career and point directly to individuals that have contributed to my personal and professional development. Early on in my career, a colleague of mine named Freddie Carroll, who is closer to my grandparents’ age, helped me understand how to focus on my energy and passion. He helped me hone skills and grow and ultimately helped guide me through taking a risk to leave a safe position to start a company with a successful entrepreneur. 

That entrepreneur, Jon Shapiro, became another key mentor in my life as we launched a business and ultimately made the difficult call to shut it down. He also advised me as I made a transition, but more than that, he taught me leadership, he taught me culture, and he taught me compassion in a beautiful way. Ironically, we worked together again a few years later and maintain a strong personal relationship today.

The third mentor I’d like to acknowledge was Pat Priest, and she once said to me, after I publicly thanked her for being my mentor, that she felt like I was mentoring her. Mentors give, but they also receive. I firmly believe in calling out mentors and thanking them for their time as it is the greatest resource!

 Why I Give Back as a Mentor
Because of what I have been given in life, I feel compelled to give it back and more. I live a life of service. It is one of my greatest passions. I actively serve my family, my community, friends, employer and ultimately the entrepreneurial community. Therefore, I give back as a mentor whenever I can, and as it makes sense. Sometimes, it’s mentoring the leader of an entrepreneurial organization, others a startup through a key phase, or a student interested in entrepreneurship. I have had the blessing to teach entrepreneurship at five institutions and to mentor many young men and women, quite a few of which I stay in contact with. I do this because I have been blessed, and others have invested in me. I do this because I know that others are continuing to invest in me and I know now the impact a few hours of my time might have on someone else’s life.

 Types of Mentors
Mentors exist in many facets of life, personally and professionally. While I believe mentors can benefit both realms, I will focus on the types of professional mentors that most positively impact entrepreneurs. I believe there are four main types of entrepreneurial mentors.

 First, there are content or subject matter expertise (SME) mentors. These are individuals who possess in-depth knowledge that you would be unable to replicate, hire or consult without their experience. These mentors may be deep in their knowledge of a field of science, marketing, sales or any other aspect of your business. Similarly, these may also be financial, accounting or legal experts that provide enough guidance to mitigate your need to spend large sums of money until the time is right.

 Second, there are experienced industry mentors. They come to you to bridge the gap in you and your team’s market understanding. Each industry has its own vernacular, its own processes and players and its own value chain. These mentors are there to navigate you through connections, regulatory and legal environments and partnerships.

 Third, there are mentors who possess significant experience as an entrepreneur or an executive leader and their strategic insight is incalculable. By walking alongside you through decisions and providing advice at critical moments, their voice in your ear can assist you in avoiding landmines that entrepreneurs fall into by accident.

The fourth type of mentor is phased or staged. What I mean by this is that they possess a situational experience that exceeds anything else you could supplement. For instance, someone who has been around hundreds or even thousands of early-stage companies that are working through validating an idea for feasibility and launching it rapidly can step in and support you far better than someone who does not have that experience. Similarly, there are mentors that have guided entrepreneurs through acquisition, raising capital, hiring their first outside leaders, transitioning the founder, and other important milestones. These mentors are valuable beyond measure for that stage or phase.

It is important to consider what type of mentors you need based upon your own skills, stage and type of business.

Roles of Mentors
Now, let’s consider what a mentor actually does for you and how you use them. Mentors have a job to do and that job is typically unpaid and has benefits that do not always show fruit immediately. As the entrepreneur, your role is to seek out mentors, ask their advice and return only when you have done what they recommended!

 The four roles of mentors I most often see are one-off, seasonal, ad hoc and long term. One-off mentors are those that step in to quickly solve a problem, efficiently share advice or address an issue rapidly. There is typically not a long-term relationship, but the value provided is high and efficient. There are seasonal mentors who guide you through a season of your life. These mentors are there to serve in a role as you wade through unknown waters and you often build a great relationship during this time, but their value decreases as you move out of the place you are in. Ad hoc mentors are those that you have developed a relationship with that you can trust to gain advice from them as you need it. They are typically very high-level, very busy and very successful so your time with them is limited. They can quickly assess what you need and provide solutions with quality. Finally, there are long term mentors that you engage with regularly for, in many cases, large portions of your adult life. They may become personal friends and bridge the personal-professional mentor role in a way that works holistically.

How to Find a Mentor
Finding a mentor can be an exact science, but most often happens by accident and you look back realizing the relationship turned into this role. Intentionality matters and many entrepreneurial ecosystems provide mentorship programs, which I’ll highlight in the next section. It is important to know what type and role you are looking for first. Random acts of mentorship rarely produce the fruit either party seeks. Assess your skills, gaps, stage and needs before seeking a mentor. Next, you should look into your own network personally and professionally to see if there is someone within your circle that could become a more formal mentor to you. Also consider former colleagues, bosses, teachers and others that you may have lost touch with as resources. It is easier to reconnect than to create a fresh connection. Finally, look for organizations that seek to foster mentorship. Chambers of commerce, alumni organizations, business and civic clubs and entrepreneurial support organizations.

Local Tools and Resources
I would be remiss if I did not directly recommend mentor resources through Startup Waco. Startup Waco is an entrepreneurial support organization whose role is to help anyone interested in entrepreneurship start, build and grow their business in the Greater Waco region. They have programs designed to provide you with mentorship, many of which model the types and roles reflected earlier in this article. Visit Startup Waco online to sign up for their Expert Hours, Expert Live, or Mentor Network programs.

I would like to leave you with thoughts about comparing advisors and mentors. I have strong opinions here and want to ensure that I properly delineate between the two. Fundamentally, mentors are volunteers and give back without expectation of financial gain. Having said that, it does not mean that mentors cannot become formal advisors with a financial role. An accountant who shares advice that is beneficial to you should very well be on the top of your list of CPA firms to hire when you need their services. The same goes for other professional services. Likewise, a highly valuable long-term mentor might be someone you recruit to your board of advisors and ultimately pay them with shares in your company if it is mutually agreeable. 

Remember, mentorship is a two-way street and not just a transactional relationship. You get what you give, regardless of which side of the table you are on and everyone benefits from a good mentorship relationship. Consider both when seeking out and contributing to the community of entrepreneurship by utilizing mentorship.

 

Jeremy Vickers, Ph.D., serves as Associate Vice President of External Affairs at Baylor University where he leads institutional events, community relations, and external affairs. He is passionate about innovation and entrepreneurship and channels that passion to serve organizations where he can support both growth and change. Jeremy lives in Waco, TX with his wife Jackie and four children.

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