Mentorship starts with a coffee

By Ray DePaul

I had a coffee or beer this week with five different entrepreneurs who reached out to me to talk through a challenge they were having. I didn't have many answers, but that's not what they were searching for. They just needed someone to talk through a situation and perhaps ask some questions that shed new light on how they might move forward. I did my best to be a good mentor without pretending to know the answers to their non-trivial challenges. But this isn't about being a mentor. It's about seeking one out.

I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I never sought out a mentor. In hindsight it was probably the biggest mistake of my career. When I look back at the dozens of critical decisions I've made, I wonder what might have changed if I had a coach in my corner. Would I have enjoyed my formal education more if someone helped me put it in context? Would I have taken that job that felt like a kick to the gut when the red flags were all there? Would I have avoided some of the toughest choices I made as a leader that resulted in employees that I cared about losing their jobs?

I understand the apprehension about reaching out to a possible mentor. For me, I convinced myself that they were busy people and they wouldn't have time for me. But digging deeper, I was proud and needing a mentor felt like a sign of weakness. Well, I was wrong and I expect your list of reasons are also misguided.

Mentors are honoured to be asked and will also benefit from the relationship. I can't begin to tell you how much I've learned from the relationships I've formed with young entrepreneurs. It's not simply a use of my time, but rather an investment of my time. And if you think you are too good to need a mentor, then you're better than Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Richard Branson who all had influential mentors.

One tenet of good mentorship is that it needs to be driven by the mentee, not the mentor. You are in control and it's up to you to initiate the relationship. If that makes you uncomfortable, then you're probably jumping ahead a few steps. I've never had anyone ask me to be their mentor on the first "date". It always starts with an offer to buy me coffee. Sometimes we have a nice coffee but don't pursue it further. Sometimes we click and have another coffee. Before you know it, I'm invested in the person and I hear that they've called me a mentor. I have to admit, it's a pretty nice thing to hear, so go make someone's day and invite them for a coffee.