Peer to peer: How mentors pull the ‘leader out of the weeds’

Why is it important for every entrepreneur/business leader to have a mentor?

Lisa Niemetscheck - General manager, Forum for Women Entrepreneurs

There are many reasons to work with a mentor.

Unlike a business coach or a friend, a mentor can be the person who challenges the leader to think critically at the strategic level, pulling the leader out of the weeds for the betterment of the business, while caring about the leader and his or her career journey.

It’s easy for leaders to be caught in the day-to-day challenges of business and to be excited by shiny opportunities. Mentors help focus on the bigger picture, whether by being brutally honest in their feedback or by asking simple questions that jolt decision-makers into seeing and thinking at a higher level.

Instead of congratulating the leader on the plan and saying “good luck,” a mentor takes a step back and asks critical questions that others may not.

For the business leader, a successful mentorship means being open to having one’s ideas challenged. This is not always easy for everyone, but it fosters strategic thought about seemingly simple issues.

Apart from constantly elevating the conversation to the strategic level, mentors invariably care about their mentee.

When navigating the successful sale of one’s company, or an economic slump that has forced layoffs, a mentor can provide insight from his or her own past experiences to help prepare the mentee for emotions – high and low – that can come with doing business. Mentors are also very observant; during the toughest times, they may recognize weaknesses first and suggest steps the leader can take to feel empowered to lead through to success.

Cam Good - Co-chairman, Entrepreneurs’ Organization Vancouver

Mentors are the greatest untapped resource available for every entrepreneur. For any business leader to think that he or she doesn’t need a mentor, sounding board or alternative source of advice is contrary to sound business principles. The only case where an entrepreneur wouldn’t benefit from a mentor is if that person is an expert in all fields, and that person doesn’t exist.

That doesn’t mean that a mentor is going to be an expert in all things either. The real advantage of a mentorship relationship comes from finding those individuals who have stronger skills in areas that you aren’t as well versed in. And therein lies the challenge – finding those mentors willing to offer their friendship and expertise.

The truth is that a positive mentorship relationship can be hard to find. While most business leaders are often willing and able to extend a helping hand and are often flattered at the prospect, establishing a strong, lasting mentorship relationship can be difficult. That’s why entrepreneurial organizations are so vital in creating those connections.

By participating in local chapter organizations, entrepreneurs get the opportunity not only to meet peers at their level, but also to connect with business leaders who could eventually fill the shoes of a mentorship role.

Remember, well-established business leaders had, and continue to have, mentors of their own. They understand the value these relationships bring and are likely willing to help others looking for mentorship as they once were.

Kirby Brown - General manager, Sea to Sky Gondola

My career was shaped by my mentor. But we never had the “I am your mentor” conversation – it just happened.

I was 25 years old, earnest, energetic and naive. He saw my potential before I did, had the tough conversations with me when I needed them and framed my understanding of what it means to be a leader. Moreover, he understood me and compelled me to take risks well beyond those I would have chosen were it not for his belief in me. He made an effort to expose me to other leaders and presented me as an equal even if my title was far inferior to those of the others around the table. In his own way, he was allowing me to walk in the shoes of the leader I was to become, so I could understand and anticipate the demands that would entail. He allowed me to suffer and learn the irreplaceable lessons that come from it. I remember one pivotal moment a few months into a new position. I was overwhelmed and underperforming. Late one evening I spied the light on in his office, walked in and asked for a moment of his time. I sat and said, “You can’t be happy with how I’m doing. I’m not.”

“Kirby,” he replied, “pressure is what makes diamonds.”

It was all I needed to hear. I told him that the only thing I refused to do was fail. I went back to my desk and dug deeper than I had before. What I really meant was that I wouldn’t dishonour his commitment to me by giving up. And I think that’s the essence of why we all need a mentor throughout our careers.  They’re a mirror for the potential hidden in us – and occasionally a cattle prod to get us moving toward it.