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The Outside Insight You Need

“The Outside Insight You Need”

Multiple mentors make growth easier; how to recruit advisers and get more from them.

It’s lonely at the top. You worry whether your business is growing too fast — or too slow. You have government regulators breathing down your neck. You see your family infrequently.

Yet mentors make it easier. Smart chief executives summon seasoned leaders with proven track records to lend their expertise.

Good mentors tell you what you don’t know — and spur you to act on what you do know. Their insights and observations, filtered through decades of experience, propel you on a faster learning curve than you could ever chart on your own.

Surround yourself with multiple mentors rather than settling for just one — and strive for diversity. Ethical, experienced executives come in all shapes and sizes, from a retired CEO to a business-school professor. Ideally, you want to call upon folks you admire and respect, who enjoy a challenge and who want you to succeed.

Cultivate winners

The search for mentors starts with a simple question: May I get your advice?

You risk rejection if you begin by asking, "Will you be my mentor?" But by inviting an influential leader to serve as a sounding board and give you feedback on a specific business issue, you advance the relationship in a casual manner.

Recruit mentors all the time. When you attend conferences, trade shows or association meetings, introduce yourself to guest speakers and visiting dignitaries. When you join nonprofit boards or volunteer in your community, look for impressive executives who demonstrate keen judgment and a willingness to listen and learn. Scour your college or business-school alumni directory for high achievers who understand the kind of challenges that second-stage companies face. Check if your city or county offers a program to match business owners with mentors. Also contact SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) or your local chamber of commerce to learn about mentoring resources.

After you gather a mentor’s first bit of advice, test it out and follow up, so mentors can track how their input pays off.

Maximize the relationship

Mentors offer fresh perspectives that help you assess your business from all sides. They’ll uproot your assumptions, ask smart questions and reduce complex challenges into simple decisions.

To derive the most benefit from what they tell you, withhold judgment. Listen for understanding, not agreement. Welcome differences in outlook or opinion, rather than instantly defending your views. Mentors’ comments may strike you as odd or wrong at first, but upon reflection, you may realize that they’re onto something.

When you seek advice on a problem, succinctly describe your goal, what you’ve done so far to reach it and your results to date. Avoid asking, "What would you do?" Most mentors prefer that you draw conclusions for yourself, rather than heed orders.

Stick to a schedule with mentors. Monthly or bimonthly face-to-face meetings work best, but whatever the frequency, stick to it. By establishing a routine of ongoing contact, both parties expect to connect on a regular basis.

Finally, consider mentoring a startup entrepreneur. Use your knowledge to help rookies who are about to undergo the initial trial by fire that you’ve already survived. Your mentors will enjoy learning that their hard-earned wisdom won’t stop with you, but will flow freely on to novice CEOs.

Writer: Morey Stettner, a management writer and trainer in Portsmouth, N.H., is author of "Skills for New Managers" (McGraw-Hill, 2000). stettner@attbi.com

CEOs Making it Happen: Getting More From Mentors

Business savvy — and more

Mark Tarner At The South Bend Chocolate Co., founder and president Mark Tarner’s mentoring relationship means more than talking shop. They chat about everything from life to local politics. When the subject turns to advice, Tarner often challenges what he hears. "Don’t take what a mentor says blindly," Tarner explains. "They won’t respect you if you do. A good mentor wants some healthy disagreements."

Tarner is leading his South Bend, Ind.-based firm through what he calls a "growth spurt" from 20 to 120 stores. "There’s no textbook on how to do that, so I’m lucky to have some great mentors," he says.

Growing the right way

Eloise Gonzalez-Geller knows that without trust, you have nothing — especially when it comes to mentoring relationships. "Trust is so important with a mentor," she says. "You need to disclose everything, including corporate secrets, so you want to be able to open up freely."

Gonzalez-Geller’s company, Commercial Interior Contractors Corp., has grown 15% a year over the past decade. But the Miami-based CEO knows she still has much to learn. So she enlisted in a mentoring program run by Miami-Dade County.

Gonzalez-Geller was paired with the head of a $200 million construction firm. "I’ve known him for five years, and I’ve respected him as a successful person in our community," she says. "Now I’m finding out that as a mentor, he’s phenomenal."

Through their monthly meetings and frequent phone calls, Gonzalez-Geller has gathered sound advice. For example, her mentor urged her to bid for mid-size projects that offer the greatest margins, not jobs that are too big or too small to produce maximum profit.

Smart dad, smart moves

Ruth Ellen Miller Ruth Ellen Miller looks to her 72-year-old father for advice.

Co-founder and president of NoUVIR Research in Seaford, Del., Miller reels off dozens of examples of how her dad, "an old rocket scientist who did Apollo launches," has helped her business grow between 15% and 20% a year since 1995. His advice when she was just starting out: Plan big, start small, don’t borrow.

"If you don’t plan, it’s easy to get sidetracked," explains Miller. "If you start borrowing, you might sacrifice long-term gains in order to pay off the bank." When it comes to starting small, Miller’s father likes to say, "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time."

When suitors wanted to buy NoUVIR, Miller’s father suggested that she uncover their true intent by analyzing their questions.

Instead of asking about the strength of her patents or long-term research, the potential buyers wanted to know about Miller’s customers. "It never would have dawned on me that they wanted to buy us to float stock to dazzle a bunch of investors," says Miller, "but it turns out that’s exactly what they intended."

Photo of Ruth Ellen Miller by Thom Thompson