Find yourself a mentor, now!

“Guys, I think you should start hiring a CFO right now.”

That was our mentor — a serial entrepreneur — giving my business partner and me some advice a few years ago.

“What?! There are barely 15 people working with us, everything’s going fine, we definitely don’t need one!”

“Yes, but in ten months’ time, you will. Finding the right person should take you six months. By the time that person can leave her company, nine to ten months will have gone by in total.”

We were experiencing one of the best aspects of having a mentor: they can guide you to a better place when you don’t know which direction to take. It’s as if your mentor can see much farther than you. You’re almost blind, and they have some kind of hawk-like vision. That’s what it feels like to get the benefit of a mentor’s experience.

At first, this situation was disconcerting (after all, we weren’t looking for a CFO at all), but it proved immensely useful. It was one of the best decisions we could have made, and it saved us a lot of time! If we hadn’t received this advice, we would have realized that we needed a CFO roughly 12 months later. It would have taken another nine months to find the right person (21 months in total!)

This was probably my first experience of having a mentor. I thought, “Wow, everyone should get the same benefit. This is so useful!”

Whatever you’re trying to accomplish, finding a mentor will certainly help you go farther and faster:

  • Want to start a band? Find a mentor who’s done it too!
  • Want to grow your company? Get guidance from a mentor who has been through your ‘growing pains’ and can understand them!
  • Want to change careers? Again, the best person to talk to is a mentor who has done it too!

This is what we offer at OpenClassrooms: the possibility of having your own mentor to help you learn your next job!

The difference between a mentor and a teacher

People mistake mentors for teachers. They’re not the same, though they seem similar. Here are a few pointers to distinguish them:

In most people’s minds, teachers:

  • Are expected to have a lot of knowledge they can transmit (not the same as experience)
  • Are there to judge if you’ve made progress (and are ultimately the key to getting a degree)
  • Are generally helping several people at the same time (a class)
  • Usually have some position of authority on you

Mentors, however:

  • Will repeat that they are not you, that they cannot decide for you, but will give their feedback and feelings about the situation you’re going through
  • Have experiences to share, rather than knowledge
  • Are generally helping one person at a time (one-to-one mentoring works best)
  • Do not hold a position of authority, view you as an equal, facing challenges that they themselves went through

These pointers should give you an idea of the underlying difference between these two roles.

Don’t think someone has to choose between being a teacher or a mentor. Some people actually act as both.

Don’t think being a mentor is better than being a teacher; they are just different ways to help someone to learn.

Finding the right mentor

This is the hardest part. Finding the right person can be difficult, depending on the type of mentor you’re looking for.

I would recommend networking to find the person you need. Go to places where your ideal mentor would go. In fact, think about who you’d really like to have as a mentor. It could be someone famous, why not try? People are usually honored to be viewed as potential mentors. Ask them!

How does it work?

From my experience, you should see your mentor on a regular basis, whether it’s once a week or once a month. If your mentor does not have a lot of time, even once every other month is better than nothing, but try to keep to the schedule once you’ve agreed to it.

A session with your mentor should last around an hour. You should come prepared with questions… and don’t be afraid to ask what you really want to know! Take notes in-between sessions, so you don’t forget your questions.

You should always position yourselves as equals. This is really important: it will prevent you feeling like you’re going to be judged or that it’s unsafe to talk about your fears and crazy ideas.

Finally, you shouldn’t have the same mentor for too long. One or two years is great. At some point, you’ll benefit from having another mentor… and from being a mentor yourself! But that’s something I’ll keep for my next post. 😉