How woman entrepreneurs benefit from using a mentor

By Joanna L. Krotz

Using a mentor should be on your front burner as a business strategy, because a smart mentor can make all the difference in building your business. By tapping the expertise of someone who's already jumped the hurdles, you can cut to the chase much more efficiently.

Mentoring is defined by an agreement between a protégé and a business guru in your community or industry. Both sides understand that the purpose is to advance the protégé's interests and goals. Mentoring isn't a gripe session or a flurry of phone calls. It's a formal process, with regular meetings and a system for reviewing progress and performance.

The premise of such relationships is that the mentor has been there and done all that. In theory, the mentor is a business veteran who knows, viscerally, what it feels like to walk in your shoes. You, as protégé, agree to heed the advice and to work at change, typically not an easy task. If you're unwilling to implement the advice, then you're wasting your mentor's time and should move on.

So what's the catch for women owners about finding the right mentor?

The sexes do not experience the business world in the same ways, whether as client or supplier, manager or marketer. What's more, we're now experiencing the first generation or so of widespread success for women-owned businesses. That means the been-there/done-that part of the mentor equation isn't as deep or wide for women as it is for men. That holds true for mentors and entrepreneurs alike.

As a result, women choose mentors differently, and for different reasons, than men do. Let me elaborate on how and why, as well as offer tips for using mentors.

How to think like a girl

"Men teach you to think and act like men and women teach you to think and act like women," says Linda Higgison, who in 1977 founded TCI Companies, a Washington, D.C., events and meeting business that now boasts $5 million in annual revenues. On the way up, says Higgison, now in her late 50s, all of her mentors were men. "By my late 40s, I said there's something wrong with this picture. I was conflicted."

Her disconnect came from an instinct to be intuitive, versus the distant, unemotional leadership style she had developed. After reevaluation and some peer-to-peer coaching with women, Higgison evolved a style that made her more comfortable. "My success has soared as a result of that," she says.

Does this mean only women should mentor women? Not for a nanosecond.

It does suggest, however, that women business owners may do well by enlisting several mentors, men and women, who can offer varying skills and tutoring. Or, consider a series of mentors, each for specific challenges, say, ramping up technology or honing financial skills.

This multiple-mentor approach has proven effective for high-achieving women. One recent study of male and female corporate presidents and vice presidents that compared career-building mentor relationships found that women averaged more numerous and longer mentor relationships than did men. All the women in the study, conducted by Susan Schor, a management professor at New York–based Pace University, had one to four mentors in their careers, while only half of the men had any at all. The men who did had only one or two.

In addition, women's relationships with mentors averaged five years. With men, it was only two.

What women gain from mentors

Clearly, women benefit from mentors. But the relationships do seem qualitatively different than the ones men forge. Here are eight tips on how to leverage this special relationship.

1. Seek out a good fit for a mentor. "Make sure the mentor's social style and values match your own as much as possible," says Sid Walker, a sales performance coach and author of Trust Your Gut. Like all partnerships, you need trust, chemistry and commitment.

2. Be subtle and less formal in your approach. Few successful experts take well to a direct request for mentoring. It's too much of an upfront commitment. "It is more appropriate to say, 'Would you be willing to join me for lunch or breakfast? I need some advice and I would love an opportunity to pick your brain,'" suggests Barbara Danforth, who directs a mentoring program for businesswomen for the YWCA of Greater Cleveland. Alternatively, you can ask a mutual friend or associate to introduce you to a potential mentor.

3. Establish some goals and expectations. Many protégés and mentors write down goals and expectations from the relationship. If that's too formal for you, at least discuss, beforehand, exactly what you expect and want to achieve.

4. Consider star power. A high-profile mentor may be able to open doors. In selecting one, think about how she or he might help your business. "If your mentor can speak about you glowingly with colleagues in your industry, you gain credibility," says Alissa Krinsky, who runs Media Success, a Chicago-based media training company.

5. Enlist a mentor to expand a mature business. Mentor relationships aren't only for newbies. They can be invaluable to even veteran owners for taking business to the next level. Evette White, for example, founded her Nashville, Tenn., marketing agency in 1983, when she was only 19. Twenty years later, the company was grossing $3 million a year. In recent years, White became a protégé in a yearlong mentoring program sponsored by The Committee of 200 (, a powerful organization of women business owners based in Chicago. "I was at the stage of considering partners and I needed to expand my resources," White says. "I had to deal with the emotion and pride of owning my own business for as long as I had. It was scary to change."
Evette White, working with two mentors who had specific skills she needed, got on "a fast track through the stages of partnership." Today, as chief executive with three male partners, one of whom was a former senior manager, White's company, White, Thompson, Cunningham and Regen, is billing $12 million, and she's ready for more challenges. Her advice: "You need to be responsible for connecting with the mentor, who has lots of other things to do. Take active ownership."

6. Don't forget to give back. Offer to help others when you can. "It's not a one-way relationship," says Liz Ryan, who operates AskLizRyan (, a Web site addressing career, networking, and human resources issues.

7. Enjoy your ambition—and keep your perspective. "Most of my early mentors were men because there were so few women in the businesses I was involved in," says Alex Ramsey, who runs LoneStar Universal, an executive coaching service in Dallas. Later, after earning an MBA, Ramsey worked with a woman who was "brutally honest.’ One thing she set me straight on was this: I had become extremely tense in my drive to succeed. She showed me how if I wasn't happy, then I made everything 10 times harder. The 'puritan ethic' had hijacked my mind. My intensity was creating pressure in other people." In other words, when working with a mentor, give it your full commitment but be true to yourself too.

8. Have an exit strategy. The key to successfully ending a mentoring relationship has several components, says Lois Zachary, author of The Mentor's Guide. First, you need to process and apply the lessons you've learned. Next, acknowledge and celebrate your success with the mentor. Last, discuss with the mentor about how the relationship will change, "whether it moves from professional to colleague, friends, or ceases to exist at all," Zachary says. That's when you know it's time for your next mentor.

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