How to work with a mentor

Ok, the good news: You’ve found someone who’s willing to mentor you. You’ve picked the time and place to meet, and you have in front of you the opportunity to establish a valuable relationship that can help you propel your business forward and overcome sticking points.

Your job is to not screw it up.

To help on that front, here are some guidelines on working with mentors to help keep the interactions productive and engaging.

Keep the right frame of mind

The first meeting is a bit like dating, and on the first date, be aware that you don’t really know them and they don’t know you. You’re meeting because you think there might be something there. But like a first date, it doesn’t always work out.

The key for the first meeting is to maintain an open mind and a willingness to see where it goes. The good news is that more often than not, there is a great potential to help — as long as you focus on the positive aspects of meeting and keeping the right frame of mind. Even if the mentor has no interest in helping after learning more about your business, you’ve still introduced an influencer to your company’s story. That will pay benefits in the future, perhaps in unknown ways.

Critical ground rules – honesty and confidentiality

You’ll need to take the lead on being very open and honest about your challenges. To do so, you’re not out of line to ask for confidentiality, and explain that anything they discuss with you will receive the same level of discretion. You won’t need an NDA, but you can and should confirm that what you’re discussing is very important and confidentiality is key.

An easy way to lay it out is: “I’d like to be able to openly share some of my challenges with you, but before I do, I’d like to confirm that our conversations will remain confidential. I value your input, and I’d like to tell you the entire story, both good and bad. And anything you tell me will remain between us, also.”

Establish time commitments

This work should be fun for both of you, not a burden. You shouldn’t have to prepare a book of homework for each meeting, and the mentor should be able to plan for the meetings and for their time commitment. Feel free to send topics in advance, and clearly set the time expectations for each meeting. Sixty to 90 minutes is the right amount of time, and you are in charge of keeping it to the agreed-upon timeframe. Consider that you could meet with some mentors monthly, some less often. (Yes, you can have more than one mentor.)

Define expectations

I wouldn’t expect your mentor to do work on your behalf (though they may). It’s more reasonable to expect to receive advice, and perhaps networking introductions. The level of involvement will be determined by the mentor and your willingness to be open. Let this develop over time.

Be vulnerable

Be open and share your issues. Trust me, they won’t be a surprise to the founder on the other side of the table. Consider that they can’t help fix a problem if you don’t bring it up.

Be open to input

When you receive advice from them, the wisdom may not be immediately apparent. Listen, take notes, and don’t be defensive. Often the mentor’s experience can quickly identify a weakness or opportunity for improvement, and that may take you aback. Even if it’s advice on how you can improve, isn’t that what you signed up for?

Maintain contact

Even just to say hello. If 30 days or so have passed and you have nothing for your mentor to work on, some mentors would want a check in, or maybe even a social lunch. But if you don’t have anything concrete to discuss, no need to tie up their time.

Say thank you. Make it fun.

Notes, emails, public praise — after all, everyone has an ego. Your mentor is giving you the gift of his or her time and experience, for no cost. Don’t assume they know you appreciate it. Let them know. If you do, they are more likely to continue to help.

Commit to give back

The mentor cycle is key to a startup ecosystem’s success. Make sure your mentor knows that you want to pay it forward when that time comes. By making it known you are here to help, it makes it more likely others will invest in your success.

End it when it’s time to end it

Some mentor relationships stand the test of time and grow into lifelong friendships. Some don’t. The key is noticing that if the time spent is not helpful, or not fun anymore, be open and ask if it should continue. As companies grow and evolve, your needs may grow outside your mentor’s area of expertise, and that’s OK. Consider also that perhaps your mentor didn’t sign up for a multi-year relationship. Like any good relationship, communication is key.

We all need a support system, and I hope this series of articles has given you a pathway to developing your own. Entrepreneurs have a unique set of needs and live in an interesting world of stress, mostly with few outlets to release the pressure. Having a mentor can help provide clarity, confidence and a feeling that you are not alone in the unique pressures you feel. And you might just make a friend along the way who can share and appreciate your success.

Keith Luedeman is the founder of Goodmortgage.com, an investor with Charlotte Angel Fund and a business mentor with the QC Fintech accelerator.

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