Mentoring Is for Entrepreneurs, Too

Let me tell you a story that I think says a lot about how entrepreneurs interact with advice-givers, who are often called “mentors.” While mentoring is a given in corporations — indeed, careers rise or fall upon associations with powerful senior executives — entrepreneurs tend to shy away from the concept. By nature, entrepreneurs are more likely to be lone wolves, rugged-individual types who think they can do it all themselves. To be fair, building a company on one’s own doesn’t leave much time for cultivating mentoring relationships, even if there were scores of potential mentors waiting to be cultivated, which for entrepreneurs, there usually aren’t.

So consider how I once interacted with two of my mentors. In 1989, as I did occasionally throughout my career, I went to see the late Ewing Marion Kauffman, the founder of the Kauffman Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Kansas City, Missouri. Kauffman gave me advice from time to time on how I should run my business, a jewelry chain called Helzberg Diamond Shops, also based in Kansas City. This time, Kauffman spotted a potential problem that I hadn’t yet sighted on my own radar screen. He said my company had gotten too big, that I needed “depth of management.” I went home and promptly did nothing.

Then I went to talk things over with another person, Bob Schweich, a retail analyst on Wall Street, whom I had met as a youngster when we were cabin mates for several summers at an overnight camp. I had long admired Schweich’s analytical skills. Schweich gave me the same advice, and I went home and promptly did the same thing: nothing.

Finally, when Schweich came to Kansas City on a business trip, we went together to Kauffman’s office. It turned out that my two mentors had rented hobnailed boots. In the boots, they jumped up and down and all around, insisting that I bring new management into Helzberg Diamond Shops. It was only then that I acted. I hired a president, naming myself chairman, and also a new merchandising chief.

The results speak for themselves: within five years, I was able to achieve a goal that had eluded me for years. Specifically, at Helzberg Diamond Shops, per-store volume more than doubled to well above the industry average. In 1995, I was able to sell the company for a lot more than I otherwise would have gotten.

Becoming a Believer

My experience turned me into a believer, anxious to bring the message of mentoring to entrepreneurs. So in 1995, I founded the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program, or HEMP, aiming to do, at least for entrepreneurs in the Kansas City area, what I couldn’t do (at least on some occasions) for myself: make the best of such relationships.

At HEMP, results have been encouraging. Owners of 32 young companies — typically two to five years old, with 10 to 20 employees, and with more than $1 million in annual revenue — have been coupled with 35 seasoned business owners who have agreed to serve as “mentors.” All of the mentors are actively engaged in their own companies; more often than not, the pairings involve mentors and proteges who aren’t in the same industries. I myself serve as a mentor to six entrepreneurs. I also teach a course called “Achieving Management Excellence” at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Missouri, in which I emphasize mentoring, further spreading the word.

Accepting Advice

From my experience as both a recipient and giver of advice, I have a few points to make to today’s entrepreneurs:

  • First, forget “Atlas Shrugged.” Even entrepreneurs can benefit from assistance from the outside. Advice might be easier to accept if you, the entrepreneur, also forget the word advice. Think of mentoring, as I do, as marinade for the brain, making your thought processes clearer, sharper, and more richly seasoned.
  • Second, seek advice from multiple mentors. If mentoring is marinade for the brain, consider that a marinade is comprised of many ingredients. If you get a good idea from one outsider, namely A, another good idea from B, and a third from C, chances are your solution will be X. That is the composite of the good ideas from each of the outsiders plus your own good ideas. In all cases, help from at least a couple of mentors outweighs a mantra from a lone guru.
  • Third, peers make terrific mentors. In corporate parlance, mentors are generally older and wiser executives. As an entrepreneur, you needn’t be so limited. While for me the late Kauffman was indeed of the older and wiser vintage, consider my camp buddy, Bob Schweich. Though a contemporary, he brought to the table a set of skills that were different from my own and from which I could benefit. Considering this, at the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program, we encourage young entrepreneurs to serve as advisers to each other’s companies.
  • Finally, and most of all, it’s the chemistry that counts. At HEMP, we strive first and foremost to pair people who work well together, humbly acknowledging that we won’t always be right about something as elusive as chemistry. What we do know is that simpatico has little to do with superficial factors, such as mentor and protege being in the same industry. That’s one reason why most of our pairings aren’t industry-specific. We also know that we want our pairs to develop associations that continue throughout the years. When we succeed, there are no words to describe the sense of accomplishment; when we fail, we uncouple, re-couple, and move on.

Giving Advice

Now, I have some advice for the advice-givers. Once again, let me illustrate with a story. When my father would consult with his attorney, he would go armed with a list of questions. During the meeting, he would raise the questions, then proceed to provide his own answer to each of the questions. Finally, he would turn to the attorney and say, “Why am I paying you $100 an hour when I’m supplying all of the answers?” Well, that’s one great way to be a mentor: like my father’s attorney, simply listen.

Another good way is to enable the advice-seeker to come to his or her own decision, by suggesting that the person list, on a long sheet of yellow paper, the pros and cons of several possible approaches. Only when the protege persists should you take the next step and actually offer advice — and only after taking care to couch the advice so that it doesn’t sound like advice. One of my favorite phrases is: “In my opinion, I’d do it this way…” With any of these three techniques — in my opinion, in descending order of preference — I believe a mentor fulfills his or her obligation: that of forcing a protege’s own thought processes to solve problems.

One last piece of advice, if I may: pass it on! Not only does being a mentor make good business sense, but it also might be the only way you can thank your own mentors. One day, as I tried to thank Ewing Marion Kauffman for his years of support for me, he said, “That’s OK. Someday you will help someone, too.” With the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program, I’d like to think I’m doing just that.

More like this: Entrepreneurial Life

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