Let’s face it: there is someone in your industry that is wiser, better-connected and more experienced than you. And if you can tap into their wisdom by asking them to become your mentor, it could put some serious rocket fuel into your career...
When 25-year-old Dubai resident Dara Alsulayman first set out on her entrepreneurial journey, she knew that she had some gaps in her knowledge. If she was going to win over investors and make important connections that would help bring her new tech product in the employee engagement sector to life (jaazi.me), she needed something that would make people feel she was someone you could really believe in.
Her answer wasn’t to find herself a mentor. Her answer was to find herself three.
‘They were all people who could help me launch my business,’ says Dara, ‘mentors that could fill in my own skills or networking gaps. It helped me immensely, especially in the early phases when I was the sole founder and they added a sort of ‘clout’. People respected me more because they could see I had mentors who were thought-leaders, and the fact that I had these mentors’ seal of approval opened the door to a lot of conversations.’
So who were these enigmatic opportunity-makers? And why did Dara single them out?
The first, she explains, was her former teacher at UCL — a woman named Christina Richardson, who is an expert in entrepreneurialism. ‘She is an academic,’ says Dara, ‘and she really helped inform the more academic aspects of my business and helped to understand the psychology from an academic perspective.’
The second mentor was someone who had been in similar shoes as Dara and had launched his own business: a man named Mik Naayem, who is a board member at Axiom Zen and chief business officer at CryptoKitties. His mentorship was offered as part of an accelerator programme run by UAE-based entrepreneurial platform Womena, and what he brought to the table was lots of insight pertaining to business strategy.
The third and final mentor was a Human Resources executive named Thamer Al Harthi. ‘He helped me to create a network in the HR space,’ says Dara, ‘and let me have someone on my side from HR who could help me better communicate with potential clients.’
If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Well this is all very interesting but I’m not starting my own business,’ it’s important to understand that mentors can help literally anyone in need of a professional leg-up. Whether you’re 25 or 55, an entrepreneur or an employee, if you want to give your career a bit of a boost, working with a mentor could be just the answer.
‘I definitely don’t think you need to be an entrepreneur to have a mentor,’ says Dara. ‘I work in the employee engagement space and one of the primary reasons for employee disengagement is a lack of communication and a lack of recognition. I think that establishing mentor/mentee relationships can really help people have a better career path or better understanding of what they are doing.’
There are dozens of myths surrounding mentors: the website SiliconRepublic.com recently reckoned that among the most common ones were that mentors had to be someone senior who works at your company and also that mentoring is reserved for serious high-flyers within an organisation.
It’s just not true. If you take your working life seriously, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from reaching out to people whose wisdom would help fast-track your career progression.
So how do you find a mentor? Forbes recently spoke to a number of business coaches to see what they thought people seeking one should do – their top tips for making an initial connection included signing up for thought-leaders’ newsletters and replying to their weekly emails, thus striking up a conversation. ‘Influencers send out thousands of emails a week, yet they rarely get any dialogue in return,’ they wrote. Similarly, they suggested trying to engage with the LinkedIn postings of these people.
Alex Moyle, a leadership performance coach and author (alexmoyle.co.uk) who has clients across Europe and the UAE, says that the ideal mentor is someone you know and respect who has experience in your field. ‘What you want is someone that can help guide you,’ he says. ‘If they don’t have that connection with your market, they perhaps can’t help you in the way you need.’
A great place to go looking for a mentor, he says, is among the recently retired: senior business leaders who have an endless supply of knowledge and are now sitting at home, bored, and missing the excitement that once got them out of bed each morning. ‘They often can’t wait to find someone who needs a bit of help and advice,’ Alex says.
One thing that’s worth pointing out is that asking someone to be your mentor can be a bit like asking someone, ‘will you be my boyfriend/girlfriend?’: it can seem like you’re asking someone to take too big a leap and too soon. So ad-hoc mentor-style relationships are often easier to establish, says Alex, and they can still be very beneficial. ‘If you say to someone, “I’ve got a couple of challenges I want to work through; if I bought you a coffee would you talk me through them?”, then most people will say yes,’ he says. ‘Getting ad-hoc informal mentoring advice is not difficult.’
The idea of mentors offering their time to relative strangers can be a hard one to get your head around. Why do they do this? Why would someone who is already busy offer to guide someone they don’t know? There are several answers — and one is that, sometimes, there is money involved. While many mentorships are unpaid, some mentors — especially those who are offering invaluable services to the founder of a start-up — may negotiate payment in return for their expertise.
Plenty more, however, do it for free. The explanations they give range from wanting to help people with ambition; enjoying the feelings they get from working with someone who values their wisdom; the networking and business opportunities that may arise as a result of the mentorship and — very often — the feeling that it is only fair to give something back.
‘I mentor lots of people,’ says Alex. ‘I think it’s just part of being a good person that you help people that you like and that you want to see doing well. Part of it is also paying back for the advice I got from people that have helped me in the past and who were keen for me to do better.’
Dara may only be 25, but her recent business journey has equipped her with multiple new skills and armed her with a fleet of powerful contacts. She can see how what she has learned could be passed on to others. ‘I think in the beginning I didn’t see that there was much value to what I could bring to other people, but now I can,’ she says. ‘But you do have to be self-aware and know the limits of the value you bring.’
It’s a lesson for us all. As long as you know where your knowledge begins and ends, you don’t have to be Richard Branson or Elon Musk to add value to someone’s career or their business adventure. Equally, you don’t need to be the next high-flyer to ask for help.
‘When you’re an entrepreneur, you seek out mentors because there are things you’ve got to learn, and it’s no different in a corporate environment,’ says Alex. ‘You may have to learn how to navigate political situations or conflict between departments and things like that.
‘Most of the conversation someone will have with their line manager are operationally-focused, and sitting down and saying, “I’m struggling with this” is not something all managers are prepared to help with.’
So mentoring in corporate environments is just as important as it is for entrepreneurs. ‘That’s because it is very easy to get stuck in a situation where you just don’t know what it is you need to do,’ Alex says.
6 WAYS TO GET A MENTOR
1. If you’re an entrepreneur, first identify the gaps in your knowledge – key areas that need filling in as you traverse from A-B.
2. Consider if there is anyone within your social group or business network who has the knowledge and experience you need and ask them politely for a coffee so you can pick their brains.
3. If there is a good chemistry there, consider asking them if they would be your mentor – maybe after a few more ad-hoc sessions. Make sure you develop a clear set of goals about what exactly it is that you are trying to achieve. Leadership performance coach Alex Moyle says a good mentor is there to guide you: ‘They are standing side-by-side with you, not pushing from behind or pulling from in front,’ he says.
4. Consider payment or a slice of equity in your business if you feel their commitment needs to be substantial – or if their knowledge will clearly be instrumental in making a success of your business.
5. If you’re in a corporate environment, ask HR if there is a mentoring programme you could benefit from. ‘These are designed to encourage people a level or two higher than you to mentor highpotential individuals,’ says Alex.
6. If there isn’t one, a good family friend who has lots of business experience could be a potential mentor; likewise, there could be someone you know in the business who is senior to you – but crucially, not higher up your direct line of command – that you might be able to get ad-hoc help from. These are the people to turn to for help with the unwritten, political issues for which there is often no definitive right or wrong.