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The Entrepreneur: Mentors Are a Must-Have

When forming a business, it is good practice to seek advice from those who have been there before.
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The handful of people I consider my mentors collectively have been one of the biggest influences on my business career. I can say without question that I wouldn't have achieved a quarter of what I have accomplished without their guidance and support.

Some of my mentors were business gods, such as Pete Musser, who either founded or funded companies such as

Safeguard Scientifics

,

Comcast

and QVC; the late Hubert Schoemaker, who built biotech juggernaut

Centocor

; and Betsy Cohen, chairwoman of two public companies,

The Bancorp

and

RAIT

.

Other mentors include my first full boss, who was a vice president at a tax administration company who lived by the

TheStreet Recommends

One Minute Manager

book written by Ken Blanchard, and another was my third manager, who ran Penn State University's Great Valley Campus and now is the associate provost at West Virginia University, my alma mater.

All of them taught me something different. The one thing they all had in common was they liked sharing their knowledge and experiences. Nothing is more gratifying to a teacher than a willing pupil, and I was probably more eager than most. I was hardworking but academically average. So I had self-confidence but not so large an ego that I wasn't receptive to advice and suggestions.

There are plenty of quality mentors available and people are usually honored that someone would respect them enough to ask. Mentors are people who:

  • Share their experiences.
  • Listen to problems without solving them, but help their proteges think through problems so they can solve them on their own.
  • Ask the tough questions.
  • Point out mistakes.
  • Rebuke their charges when they are out of line.
  • Provide guidance on how to methodically nurture a career.
  • Make introductions to people who bring different skill sets that will improve the protege.
  • Rebuild broken psyches.

There is no age requirement, but I typically always sought out mentors that were 20 or more years older than me. I wanted coaching from people who had enjoyed tremendous success and great failure. People who only experienced success lack humility. They believe that they are infallible.

Mentors were a great help in the following areas in which I wanted to improve:

  • Dealing with top executives: I always wanted to work with top-tier executives either through writing or through my business ventures. I needed to know how they thought, acted and what they expected.
  • Selling the 'big idea': I have read about numerous business success stories, and I wanted to know how you sell your concept to successful people.
  • Managing people: There is a certain skill in driving people whose main aspiration is to earn a paycheck to maximize their potential and different skills. It also takes talent to get people who think they should be doing your job to work together.
  • Raising capital: I wanted to learn the art of raising cash. Getting someone to part with their hard-earned money or their company's capital is more difficult than selling the product or service you plan to sell after staring your business.

The right mentor depends on where you are in your professional life and your aspirations. In my case, I had always wanted to run a company, so I was looking for a person with the following qualities:

  • Entrepreneur: Someone who had started companies. I wanted to learn what it took to build a from scratch.
  • Overcame adversity: Leaders who went through highs and lows but never gave up.
  • High-level contacts: Someone who could show me how to deal at the highest levels.
  • Raised capital: I knew one day I would need to raise money, and I wanted to learn how to develop the pitch and what to say and not to say.
  • Board experience: When you are developing a company, you will want to build an advisory board and/or board of directors. I want to know how to select the right members.
  • Evaluating employees: To build a great company, you have to know how to attract talent and evaluate it. It's a skill that is learned.

Where do you find mentors? There are a variety of places:

  • Work: If you have a boss you admire, speak to him or her about why you want a mentor and what you are looking for in that person.
  • Professor: When I was an aspiring journalist, I went to one of my professors who was an on-air reporter for CBS in the 1950s and '60s and asked him to read my writing and give me feedback.
  • Place of worship: Every place of worship has experienced professionals in a variety of fields.
  • SCORE: Service Corps of Retired Executives is a nonprofit partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration that offers help from people who have either run businesses or were high level managers.
  • Family friends: You might have a family friend who could be a great mentor or know someone else who could fill the role.
  • Online and paper publications: I have contacted business executives I've seen featured in the news and asked them to breakfast or lunch to pick their brain.
  • Conferences: I like to sit in the front rows and introduce myself to the speakers.

If you are launching a new business, a division of a company, entering the management ranks or aspire to be a leader, a mentor can be an invaluable boost to your career. You are never too old to seek out people more experienced than yourself who can teach you the ropes and provide constructive feedback and encouragement.

Kramer is the author of five business books on topics related to venture capital, management and consulting. He is a faculty member at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and the veteran of over 20 start-ups and four turnarounds.